Between Home and Hell

On the shortest day of the northern year, we bring you a long read from Canada and Iceland. James Nowak's Between Home and Hell originally appeared in our SANCTUM issue, while Thomas Keyes's beautiful incipit page is now available as a limited-edition print on parchment. May you find beauty in the darkness on this Winter Solstice, wherever you are.
studies the medieval storytelling traditions of Northern Europe at the University of Toronto, where he's worked at The Dictionary of Old English and on other lexicographic projects. He tells and sings old stories in Old, Middle and Modern English, and his poetry and prose have appeared in a few humble publications. He is a scholar in the graduate class of the Orphan Wisdom school.
For the last several years, I’ve helped some friends host a winter solstice party. Their small house fills with guests, and the table brims with a great feast: cherished preserves, game meats, all sorts of sauerkrauts, cheeses, homemade ciders and meads. It’s the kind of night that makes you proud to have the friends you do, proud to be alive. Many of us are community organisers and permaculture types, with a shared interest in the old folk customs of the various European countries our ancestors scattered from in the last few centuries. On our best days, we imagine this potluck not simply as a replacement for the Christmas or Hanukkah parties we grew up with, but as a way of living out a longing for the older traditions we’ve never really known.

After dinner, everyone, kids and adults alike, crowds into the living room for what has become the focal point of the evening: a few hours of candlelit storytelling. Some of us have gotten pretty good over the years, and once in a while, a few brave first-timers tell a story they’ve prepared. I was one of these first-timers not too long ago, and in the years since, the seed planted that night has bloomed into my vocation. So I owe a lot to these friends and their willingness to gather in the name of what I didn’t yet know I loved.

They say a good storyteller is part troublemaker. Well, I guess I’m guilty, because I’m going to make some trouble now. I’m going to tell you how things took a strange turn a few years ago when the stories were going round. To my friends, please forgive me: I love this world and it’s old stories too much for my own good. 

Troubled Winter Solstice

An hour or so into the storytelling, a musician among us picked up his guitar and started introducing a song he was going to play. He spoke about various pre-Christian solstice customs and mentioned how this night was a time when the worlds of the living and the dead drew near. As far as I knew, at least in the European traditions I’d read about, this was the case. How that translated to Toronto, Canada I didn’t know, but I was willing to think that it might be true here, too. So I was wondering about such things as my friend went on explaining the song, which turned out to be a sing-along, repeat-after-me kind of thing.

Now, sing-alongs aren’t really my bag, but this guy was a professional musician, and, odd as it may sound, known widely for his sing-alongs – he can really get one going. So, I put aside my usual inclinations and listened to his instructions: everybody would have a chance to call out the first and last name of one of their dead relatives, and then, all together, we’d sing those names several times before moving onto the next dead relative.

I could see this was exactly the kind of thing many had yearned for – finally, a chance to feel connected to something old and real. People were stretching out, sitting up, readying each other for something profound. But I just couldn’t get behind it. Instead, a great sadness was blooming inside me, a concern for both my friends and their dead relatives.

For better or worse, I’ve learned from someone who knows that if you say the first and last name of a dead person, it’s akin to summoning them. It doesn’t always work – the dead don’t have their ears eternally pressed to every jabbering mouth – but it works sometimes. I figured that a room full of people loudly repeating those names would amplify the likelihood that the summons be heard, even heeded. The likelihood would be further increased because, as the singer pointed out, on this particular night, the boundaries between worlds were at their thinnest. As I reckoned it, both the song and the dead would have a good chance of slipping through the veil. It wasn’t a symbolic thing – it might really work. As far as I could tell, nobody had really considered what this would ask of us.

To be clear, I didn’t believe then and I don’t believe now that there’s anything wrong with summoning dead people, but if you’re going to invite someone over, you have to at least know that’s what you’re doing. That night, in place of such knowing, stood the desire to feel connected, shining so brightly it blinded. Even the most basic considerations, such as where these people would sit, and through which door they’d enter – things that had been planned and taken care of for the living guests – had not been sorted for the dead. Nor had anyone proposed what to feed them should they arrive – it’s rude not to feed guests, you know. And no arrangements had been made to house them for the night, or to help them get home. On the off chance that the song should work, we’d be inviting a bunch of ghosts into the room that no one knew how to care for. It was a recipe for a serious transgression, which, to say the least, could really put a damper on our party.

I didn’t know what to do. I knew the song meant a lot to my friends, but it stood to offend their dead relatives, who also meant a lot to them. To speak up would expose the naivety driving the whole affair, risk hurting people I care about, and ruin the festive atmosphere we’d worked hard to create; to say nothing would endorse a course of action I knew to be foolish, and which, if it went wrong, could just as easily ruin things. As I deliberated, the rehearsal rounds of the song came to a close; soon it would be starting for real. If I was going to say something, I had to do it now.

‘I’m sorry,’ I said, ‘but I have to stop this.’ The singer – God bless him – was caught off guard, but to his credit, realised I was serious and stopped the song. Then, with all eyes on me, I began to explain, telling them more or less what I’ve just told you. ‘If we sing the song,’ I said, ‘these dead people might actually come here tonight. I know this sounds like good news, but it’s not that simple. We’re just not prepared to handle that kind of visitation right now. Given that, I think it’s best we hold off on the song.’

My efforts weren’t received the way I’d hoped. Almost immediately, someone rescued the thing, saying she knew how to take care of these dead people and would do so when the song ended. I pressed her briefly on what she had in mind – a minute earlier, she’d been more than willing to proceed as planned – but my intervention had failed. She was sure she could handle things, and the others were content to agree.

When the song ended, the woman who’d taken charge started waving at the air and thanking the dead people for coming. She kept repeating ‘Thank you’, ‘I love you’ and ‘You can leave now!’ Cued by her example, a few others joined in. About a minute later, they finished waving, and the storytelling resumed.

*  *  *

 

I don’t know about you, but I’d be offended if someone invited me over just so they could tell me to leave. Especially someone who claimed to miss me and love me. Did the dead really show up that night? I don’t know. It’s hard to imagine they considered that racket enticing, but if I heard my name being shouted out like that, I might inquire.

There’s a lot to say about what happened that night, but I’m going to leave it here for a while with a question. What’s worse: that these dead people did come, and were disappointed and hurt by the incapacity of the living; or that the best collective effort of those who consider themselves the ‘good guys’ – the liberal-minded, earth-based spirituality people – fell so short of anything worthy of their coming? Either way, the story shows that, at least where I live, the relationship between the dead and the living is in serious trouble. And it has been for a long time.

Pleading for Tragedy

To sound the depths of this tragedy, I need to go down into old myth, ritual and language. My training is in the storytelling traditions of the medieval North, which abound in stories cataloguing the rupturing relationship between the living and the dead, between this world and the others. Among the best of these stories are those of the medieval Icelanders, and it’s by their grace that the tragedy I am pleading for might yet appear. It’s a very old tragedy, and, as is proper when approaching The Old and The Sorrowed, we’re going to take the long, slow road, out to the far field, and kneel down by the old hedge – not to force the way through and come back with an answer, but to learn something difficult and burdensome at the place where this tragedy is blooming like spilled ink in the margins, splashed blood and claw-marks on the hall-door. 

Land of Ice and Ocean

By some great fortune and mercy, most of what remains known of the pre-Christian Norse religions was loved and laboured over in the scriptoria of 14th-century Iceland. Whatever fury claimed those great learners and cranky monks – at least partly fuelled by the imminent and heartbreaking collapse of their beloved oral tradition, old religion, and political sovereignty – it filled libraries with what Ted Hughes called ‘one of the great marvels of world literature’. About forty prose narrative sagas remain, and a whole lot of poetry to boot. The poetry tends to be older – the Icelandic word Edda probably means ‘great-grandmother’ – and concerns itself largely with myths and gods. The sagas, on the other hand, are narrative accounts of the lives of historical Icelanders, mostly written down in the 14th century. They recount what was already becoming the distant pagan past. Most begin just prior to the time of the settlement of Iceland, around AD 850, and end several generations later, just after the official conversion at the turn of the millennium. Scholars debate their historical accuracy, but, at the very least, the sagas are a storehouse of old lore and ways of life that were already waning in the 14th century.

Even today, Icelanders are famous for their sensitivity to what we might call the ‘Otherworld’, and the sagas and poetry attest to a tradition of skilfulness when it comes to these matters. Part of this has to do with the relatively late conversion to Christianity. When Iceland did finally convert, they did so on the terms that they would continue eating horse meat, exposing unwanted infants and sacrificing to their gods – in private, mind you. For these and other reasons, pre-Christian ways of relating with the dead also persisted in Iceland. In the sagas, the dead figure prominently, usually in stories of hauntings by draugar ‘the walking dead’ – and we’ll be getting there soon enough. But first, I want to visit a funerary ritual briefly mentioned in two of the texts, Egil’s Saga and Eyrbyggja Saga.

Corpse-Door

In each story, an old man dies in the night. The next morning, before taking the dead man up the mountain and burying him, his son comes to his deathbed and does as follows:

[Arnkel] took Thorolf by the shoulders but had to use all his strength before he could force him down. After that he wrapped some clothes around Thorolf’s head and got him ready for burial according to the custom of the time. He had a hole broken through the wall behind Thorolf and the corpse was dragged outside. (Eyrbyggja Saga)

Egil went up to the bench, took hold of Skallagrim’s shoulder and pulled him backwards, forcing him down onto the bench. Then he gave him the last rites. Next he asked for digging tools and broke a hole through the south wall. When that was done, he got hold of Skallagrim’s head while others took his feet, and in this way they carried him out from one side of the house to the other and through the hole that had been made in the wall. (Egil’s Saga)

Scholars refer to these holes as ‘corpse-doors’, though they’re not doors in the ordinary sense, with hinges and the like, but small, window-sized passages in an outer wall. When someone dies in the house, the blocked-up passage is broken open and the dead person is passed outside; afterwards, it’s closed up again. In the late nineteenth century, the Danish folklorist and pastor H. F. Fielberg found a corpse-door on an old house in Jutland. Intrigued by what looked like a bricked-up oven, he knocked on the front door of the house to inquire. The aged owners told him it was not an oven, but a liklúke ‘corpse-door’, which they’d seen employed at wakes in their childhood. Decades later, Fielberg wrote an article telling of this encounter and listing similar examples from throughout Northern Europe, our two sagas among them. More recently, a corpse-door was found in the wall of a 15th-century log house in Norway. These examples prove that the sagas are witness to a living architectural and ritual tradition, not a literary invention.

But why go through the trouble? Why not just use the front door? The scholars say that corpse-doors are a protective measure meant to confuse and disorient the dead. Should a draugr retrace the route of his or her funeral procession, they would find an impermeable, resealed wall, rather than the front door, through which they could re-enter the house and haunt it. No doubt this is part of the function – hauntings are no joke in medieval Iceland – but it’s not the whole story.

‘From one side of the house to the other…’

Anyone who’s suffered a draughty door in the winter will tell you that the job of a good door is to keep the cold out; but doors do more than impede: they also provide access, entrance and exit, and in so doing create connections. The same is true of corpse-doors: they prevent the dead from returning and they open a passage through which the dead can leave this world for the next. The latter, I think, is their primary function. And, though it asks a lot of the modern mind – so hurt by the collapse of animism – it’s  important to say that this is not a metaphor. The small hole in the side of the house is a hole in the side of the world. Full stop.

In medieval Iceland, a house is a living thing, a microcosm of the whole world. Traces of this old way reside in the language: vindaugr means ‘smoke-hole’ or ‘window’, but translates literally as ‘wind-eye’ – the house has eyes; heims hrót means ‘sky’, but literally ‘roof of the world’ – the world has a roof. This is the old Northern equivalent of Feng Shui or sacred architecture. The language, building practices, and ways of living continually reassert the kinship of the human community with the world. This kinship extends to the human body as well: hjarta hrót means ‘breast’, but literally ‘roof of the heart’. The world, the house, the body – all anatomically kin. Just imagine, passing your days in a house so attuned to the shape and gestures of the living-world that when you lay down at night, glaring up at the ember-lit rafters, you knew yourself to be inside the rib-cage embrace of a living body, kin with your own, and itself nestled beneath the starry roof of the whole world. In such a house, a ritually-opened passageway in the wall could not be explained as some garbage-chute sleight of hand; that’s a half-annealed, modern take on things, forged in the sorrowing, broken furnace of inanimism.

Another rafter of this house is the culture’s mythological intelligence, so wonderfully elaborated in the Poetic Edda. The poetry says that Hel (the Old Norse realm of the dead, a cold place that lacks the punitive associations of Christianity) lies beyond several layers of fences – again, this is not a metaphor, but a lesson in Otherworldly geography. These fences have gates, some of which are named: Helgrind, Valgrind, Nágrind – ‘Gate of Hell’, ‘The Fallen’ and ‘The Dead’, respectively. The corpse-door, then, and the funerary practices associated with it, ritually open these gates so the dead can get to Hel. The scholars are right to point out how corpse-doors prevent hauntings, but they do so first by helping the dead find their way to Hel and thus to rest quiet in their graves, not by putting them out some clever trapdoor in order to trick them.

All that said, it’s not time to take out the sledge hammer and get cracking. The preventative function is a real thing and shouldn’t be discarded. What I’m pushing back against is the emphasis on its primacy. Both functions exist for good reason; I don’t know just what the reasons are, but I’m reluctant to blame some catastrophe or ages-old human blunder for the appearance of doorways in the world, and for the limits they impose and enforce. 

Earth-Fast Stone

Besides creating access points and barriers, doorways have a third genius: they create liminal places (a word which comes from Latin limen, ‘threshold’). Such places have a lot of appeal these days, especially among writers and the like – I’m certainly not immune. The door’s liminal magic has a long history, and it dwells right in the wood: stand in your front doorjamb and ask yourself whether you’re inside or out – the riddle is close at hand. On a more practical level, the doorway is the between-place where hospitality is negotiated and greeting rituals are exchanged. Doorway receptions (and conflicts) are a staple in medieval literatures, the sagas included, a feature which reflects their daily importance as a meeting place. So we shouldn’t be surprised to find that doors function similarly when it comes to the dead, as a meeting place between worlds.

There’s a good example in the poem Baldr’s Draumar, ‘Baldur’s Dreams’, when Odin rides to Hel to seek the aid of a dead sorceress:

Odin rode to the east door of Hel,
where he knew well was the wise woman’s grave.
He said magic words and mighty charms,
until, spell-bound, she rose and in death she spoke.

A similar meeting occurs in the late Eddic poem Grógaldr ‘The Spell of Gróa’. The poem begins with the young man Svipdag summoning his mother at the entry to her gravemound:

‘Wake up, Gróa. My good mother, wake up.
At the doors of the dead I am calling you.’

Successfully summoned, Gróa wakes and sings nine charms for Svipdag’s protection. Then she offers some parting advice:

‘Now fare you away, my son, for danger quickly gathers.
Let no harm lessen my wishes.
I have stood within the door on this earth-fast stone
singing for you these magic songs.’

Just as Fielberg found the corpse-door of the sagas still existed in standing buildings, so these poetic doorways and thresholds turn up in the archaeology. The Swedish scholar Marianne Hem Eriksen has brought together several such examples from Viking Age Scandinavia. Among them are several burials beneath the thresholds of longhouses, as well as gravemounds with door-like openings. On the edge of one such gravemound on the island of Helgö, archaeologists unearthed a small platform of red sandstone. Elsewhere on the island, this type of stone was only used inside of longhouses. What’s more, the sandstone platform was flanked by two post holes which probably formed a kind of arbour entranceway. So it’s likely Groa’s ‘earth-fast stone’ was such a platform. Again, the rituals and building practices are curled round each other like vines.

This kind of entwinement isn’t really so remarkable. Step back a little and the familiar categories soon stop making sense. An animist culture has little use for the distinctions between the so-called architectural, ritual and mythological aspects of a stone threshold, or a hedgerow. Instead, they all belong to an elaborate ecosystem of relationships and responsibilities, the perpetual enactment of which is the culture. Egil and Arnkel know how to make a corpse-door because they’ve inherited the ritual and the prerogative to perform it – and, in performing it, they not only help their fathers, but the ritual itself is renewed and sustained.

Shadowed Winter Solstice

All this is a far cry from the hastily-made decision to summon up the dead relatives with a sing-along. Instead, that whole evening occurred in the bewildered and mind-numbing absence of real culture, otherwise known as the modern West. When addressed, this absence was quickly filled with assertions of capability; but these were unfounded, rooted in the very absence they claimed to conquer. A more agile response would have been to trade in victory and reassurance for tragedy (not to be confused with paralysis or futility). Even if we lacked the skills required to proceed, we could still have upheld and honoured the traditions by acknowledging that such skilfulness was required, and choosing not to go ahead without it. That would have made for a more sorrowful evening, but, I think, a more graceful one as well.

I’m certain the Old Time Solstice rites to which the guitar player was alluding had massive and elegant understandings of hospitality underlying their every gesture, and a good deal of sorrow, too. Accompanying this must have been a great respect for the odds, however slim, that things could go wrong and cause harm to either side.

That sense of respect – fear, even – is very much alive in the sagas, and especially around the solstice. While Gróa and the other unnamed sorceress stand in doorways singing prophecy and blessings, in the story I’m going to tell you now, curse and violence are the currency. It’s a tragedy of Christmas haunting, violent conflict and ruptured thresholds. 

Nightmare, Before Christmas

One of the best-known stories from the sagas is the haunting of the ghost Glam in Grettis Saga. Glam’s fight with the hero Grettir is especially celebrated for its cinematic narration and obvious folkloric origins. I’m going to quote the fight’s climax, but first I need to give you some context.

The story happens within living memory of conversion. It will be several more centuries before Christianity is established as the norm, around the time the story is committed to writing. Indeed, the first instance of the Old Icelandic word Jól meaning ‘Christmas’ occurs in the Glam episode; all earlier uses still refer to the midwinter solstice solemnities that Christmas replaced. The conversion is very fresh here, the air still nervous with whirling dust, the meaning unclear.

It’s midwinter on a Christian farmstead. After having been hired on as a shepherd, Glam, an abnormally large man with brilliant ‘glaring eyes’ and ‘wolf-grey hair’, a follower of the old ways, refuses to fast on Christmas. The next morning, he’s found up the mountain, dead and frozen solid. They try several times to bring him to the church for burial, but keep failing for various reasons. Eventually, they give up trying and bury him on the mountain beneath a shallow pile of stones.

Already, something is awry. You see, Glam died on their farm so it’s their job to take care of him, but they can’t. The ritual vocabulary of the new religion is not up to the task: he’s too heavy, the ropes break, the horses spook, the priest cannot find him in the snow. Groping through a darkening storm, the living can’t find the dead, can’t find a threshold to stand on, a language to converse in. The old religions would have helped Glam arrive at the realm of the dead, but they’re strained and breaking. So Glam gets left there – high up the mountain, fending for himself, caught between worlds.

As the story says, ‘Glam was not quiet in his grave’. People come back from the mountain turned mad from seeing him. He rides the roofs, knocks wildly on the doors. A year later, on Christmas Eve, he kills the shepherd who replaced him. The shepherd, a Christian man, is buried in the churchyard and ‘caused no harm afterwards’. But Glam, he goes on haunting, haunting the whole valley. He kills a horse in the stable barn. Panic rises and people desert their homes in terror.

Glam is making omens, but the people can’t read them. Desperate and disoriented, Glam’s knocking sounds like thunder, his too-strong fists wrack the doors from their hinges. The old greeting rituals don’t translate; the plea gets lost and gargled; rust blossoms on the twisted pintels.

This breakdown in communication and etiquette leads to the shepherd’s death. The story says it’s the shepherd who goes to Glam’s grave, a place where offerings are made in the old religion (the Old Icelandic hörgr means ‘grave of stones’ and ‘altar’); and he comes on Christmas Eve, the very night the dead are expecting such offerings according to the old Yule customs. Glam, starving from a whole year of neglect, mistakes the shepherd for a meal. He must realize his error, because he doesn’t eat the man, just leaves him there dead. Narrowing options then drive Glam to kill a horse in the night – an animal whose blood was a regular offering in the old religion. My guess is he just couldn’t starve any longer. 

Ruptured Threshold

Only after all this does Glam actually enter the house. He’s made many gestures that would indicate something is wrong, starting on the peripheries and moving inwards – but they’ve gone unanswered. In a last ditch effort, he goes to the central house of the farmstead. It’s hard to say what his intentions are – it could be a cry for help, a delirious sleepwalk, a vengeful attack, or a mix of all three. Whatever the case, the new religion can only understand this as the next trespass of an evil creature, and must respond from there.

So, the farmer calls in the big guns: Grettir the hero waits inside for Glam. When he arrives, a fight breaks out. It will prove fatal. The following passage is taken straight from the saga, at the moment when the fight is moving from inside the hall to just within the doorway:

When Grettir realised he could not hold Glam back, in a single move he suddenly thrust himself as hard as he could into the wretch’s arms and pressed both feet against a rock that was buried in the ground at the doorway. The wretch was caught unawares and, as he had been straining to pull Grettir towards him, Glam tumbled over backwards and crashed through the door. His shoulders took the door-frame with him and the rafters were torn apart, the wooden roofing and the frozen turf on it, and Glam fell out of the house onto his back, face upwards, with Grettir on top of him. The moon was shining strongly, but thick patches of clouds covered and uncovered it in turns.

Just as Glam fell, the clouds drifted away from the moon and Glam glared up at it. Grettir himself has said that this was the only sight that ever unnerved him. Suddenly Grettir’s strength deserted him, from exhaustion and also because of the fierce way Glam was rolling his eyes and, unable to draw his sword, he lay there between home and Hel. (Grettir’s Saga)

Glam then curses Grettir: ‘My eyes will always be before your sight and this will make you find it difficult to be alone.’ As soon as Glam is finished, Grettir’s strength returns. He raises his short-sword and decapitates him. Grettir burns Glam, puts his ashes in a bag, and buries them in a distant pasture. Glam’s curse comes true.

Four Gasps of Glam’s Curse

 An incredible wealth is packed into this short passage. I’m going to follow four images, one at a time.

‘A rock that was buried in the ground at the doorway’

This is the threshold stone, the place from which Gróa spoke in her parting words to Svipdag: ‘I have stood within the door on this earth-fast stone’. Yet, where in that poem the stone enabled peaceful exchange between living and dead, here Grettir puts his foot on the stone to propel his attack. The doorway, the place of hospitality and meeting, becomes a site of extreme violence. The first wound of the fight is to the threshold itself. In a culture where the house is a living body, and the threshold is understood anatomically, the weight of this violation would register with disturbing force. 

‘Glam tumbled over backwards and crashed through the door. His shoulder took the door-frame with him’

The damage increases; the doorway is blown to smithereens. It’s important to see how this is unintentional. The saga whispers: intentions don’t matter, consequences do. And they are devastating: the meeting place itself is destroyed; the threshold between worlds caves in; splintered teeth of prayers sown like seeds on the moonlit earth.

This ruptured doorway is not a neatly-contained object: the boundaries that would contain it are the casualty. It’s like a bullet wound turning gangrenous. We can’t divorce the place of meeting from the capacity to meet, or the likelihood that meeting may occur. The door is a possibility, an invitation, a subjunctive mood, a hinged prayer that the worlds must meet. This is where the blow lands, and the darkening bruise is the West’s dream and nightmare both, a crawling network of blue veins and amplifying consequence seeding prophecy: ancestry shall become a weekend pastime, a matter of choice and opinion; gravemound prayers become a gargled sing-along; the hinge-fastened pride of the old craftsmen, a mass-produced, vinyl-clad miscreate.

‘Clouds drifted away from the moon and Glam glared up at it’

Glam is an old secret name for Moonlight. Everything about him is Old Time, almost otherworldly: he’s abnormally large and strong, he follows the old religion, and he won’t go near churches. Glam is a concentrated appearance, perhaps a death knell, of Things Very Old. The Moonlight in his eyes is the ashy glimmer of the old Neolithic hearth fires, ancient even by medieval standards.

When Grettir sees Glam on the ground, he is gripped by that lunar spell, and it changes him irreversibly. Such an encounter is the aim – or more truly, the result – of many old time rites. But, here, the rite mutates into a murderous disaster. The cultural institutions that would have mediated such encounters – among whose functions were to keep the uninitiated from them – have just been obliterated. The door is in ruins – you can’t even shut it now, the elders have died or been converted, the old poems forgotten, the prayers of the priest and his candles are no use. No lintel stands between the dead and the living, the old gods and the people; only a pile of wreckage and warfare that future generations will mistake for a culture.

‘He lay there between home and Hel’

The Old Icelandic says: ‘He lay between Heimr and Hel’. Heimr means both ‘home’ and ‘the world’. So, Grettir lies outside the house, outside the culture, outside the world. He’s too close to what he doesn’t understand, stuck in a toxic limbo with no way back – the doorway is wrecked. Glam, too, is subject to the meltdown and confusion. Is he dead? Why won’t they feed him? Why don’t the answer his knocking? This is what happens when the culture’s boundaries and the rituals marking them collapse: no way to know where you’re standing, who you’re facing, where you’ve come from, whether you’re among the living or the dead.

Ghosts of soldiers and famines and refugees, all lumbering now on the shattered tract between Home and Hell. Look: one of them is kneeling down and digging in the wet earth. He’s found something. He’s lifting it up with his frail hands… 

Splintered Winter Solstice

Let’s return now to the living room and the storytelling. Several hours have gone by. The candles are burnt down to little stubs and the mead is running low. Only a few stalwarts remain; even the stories themselves have curled up and gone to sleep. There’s lots of dishes to do – we’ll get to them in morning.

That lingering question: Did the dead show up? Truly, I don’t know how these things work, but here’s my take.

There was no zombie apocalypse, no exorcist crabwalk; no Glam bursting in looking for horse blood. It was much subtler. Everyone arrived that night already thoroughly haunted by the absence of any tradition or culture, by the silent-screaming aftermath of that thousand-year-old story. Every guest entered wearing the ruptured doorframe around their necks like a pendant, or a heavy chain. The song and all the decisions surrounding it were an effort to maintain that it was the former, to tinsel the pillory so it looked like a necklace. There’s nothing unique about my friends in this regard – it’s all too normal in the West.

More striking was the decision to proceed with the song once its merit had been called into question. A lot of half-buried convictions rose up in that moment, and those convictions are worth looking at: the belief that everything will be fine, and is fine, as long as we wish it so. That the dead are benign. That the dead are here – or not – for our own satisfaction. That the dead couldn’t possibly but benefit from our shouting their names into the night. That ‘the dead’ – and, for that matter, ‘the living’ – are clearly-defined, culturally-endorsed groups, entirely certain of their respective titles and obligations to one another. These convictions come from deep down, which is why my challenge got so quickly suppressed: someone knew what was at stake.

I’m not talking about individual people; it’s much deeper than that. What lay underneath these convictions was the tragedy I’ve been trying to articulate. Nobody wanted to contend with that level of sorrow, with all that inherited wreckage – but it was, and remains, a proper inheritance, the droning lament of the very dead people allegedly invited. While the song claimed to act on behalf of these people, it swept them under the rug rolled out in their name. The doorway, and those who live beyond it, were the first to be damaged in our effort to get near.

The backfire of this tragedy is the modern enthusiasm for portals, hedge-holes, and the like. I don’t trust it. If the story shows anything, it’s that these places – especially in times when the old agreements and protocols lie in ruins – can’t afford more damage. Think of them as endangered species, or old, ailing ancestors. Concern for their health and the ability to enact that concern on their terms must underlie any effort to get near. The Western world is rapidly falling. We cannot take the Otherworld down with us. Amid the confused efforts to conjure something of purpose and value, this sorrowed imperative is a trustworthy ally.

So, it’s troubled – you can count on that. There’s no trophy to hold, no parade baton. There’s a few old stories kicking about, trying to get told, a few splinters in the muck. This pen in my hand is such a splinter, a relic of the old doorframe, fed now by the dark wells of sorrow and learning.

 

Acknowledgements

Marianne Hem Eriksen’s work is remarkable for its bravery of thought and insight. This little chapter fed well in the high pastures of her devotion. May it run to her with a garland of meadow flowers on its burdened neck. God bless Pastor Feilberg and his keen eye. Mead and memory for the Penguin translators of Egil’s Saga, Eyrbyggja Saga and The Saga of Grettir the Strong (which are quoted to the letter in all but a few phrases). Poetic Edda translations based on those of Henry Adams Bellows – highland light and milled flour on his tombstone. Old Icelandic editions of all texts can be found in a good university library – bless the curled spines of their makers.

Like the chapter itself, the artwork woven around the text was created for the pages of SANCTUM, the twelfth Dark Mountain book (now out of print, but available as a PDF). The trio of window pieces are by Rik Rawling, while the incipit page is the work of Thomas Keyes – and is now available as a limited edition print, printed on parchment with hand-drawn marginalia.

Reply

Leave a Reply

Your e-mail address will not be published. Required fields are marked *