By Minjie Su
Heroes write their names in conquests – of kingdoms, evil enemies, sea-monsters, dragons and whatnot. But what can be more glorious, more tempting than the conquest of death? As ordinary mortals, we constantly live under the shadow of death and therefore become fascinated with it. Death is not only unknown, but also unknowable – everyone is going there, but no one makes it back to tell the tale.
For this reason, to visit the Underworld is a popular theme in mythology and literature. Odysseus is perhaps the most famous of those who has been ‘there’ and made it back. Granted, whether his journey can be counted as a katabasis (descent to Hades) is a subject of debate, for he remains on our side of the river, as opposed to Heracles and Orpheus, who have ventured further and deeper. Nevertheless, Odysseus does enter the House of Hades and returns to the world above, loaded not only with general knowledge of the dead but with specific information concerning his own future.
However, Odysseus is not alone. Up in the North, far from the Mediterranean, there is another legendary ruler who carries out a very similar adventure. His name is Hadingus. Like Odysseus, he, too, talks to the dead to learn about his own future and descends to the underworld. But whereas Odysseus achieves these two things in one go, Hadingus in two goes – both coinciding with important transitional stages of his life, which makes his chthonic adventures extra interesting.
The story of Hadingus is told in the first book of Gesta Danorum, or ‘The Deeds of the Danes’, an ambitious Latin work recounting the early history of Denmark, written by Saxo Grammaticus between c. 1188 and 1208 or not long after. According to Saxo, Hadingus is the son of the Danish king Gram and the Finnish princess Signe, whom Gram ships to Denmark after killing King Henry of Saxony, Signe’s prospective husband, at their wedding. For Signe’s abduction and other dalliances, Gram pays dearly: aided by Saxon troops, King Svipdag of Norway defeats Gram and kills him. His father’s death turns the underaged Hadingus into an exile, a fugitive in Sweden, fostered and protected by the giant Vagnhofth. There, Hadingus trains hard and bids his time, hoping one day to avenge Gram’s death and reclaim his patrimony.
Hadingus’s first encounter with the dead takes places when the boy becomes a young man. Harthgrepa, daughter of Vagnhofth, persuades Hadingus to shift his focus of life from weapons to love. He must marry her, she claims, even though, having nurtured him when he was but an infant, she is practically a mother to him. Hadingus is eventually won over and sleeps with her. Afterwards, when Harthgrepa discovers Hadingus’s desire to return to his country, she accompanies him.
One day, they happen to take lodging in a house where the master just died. Harthgrepa inscribes some spells on wood and asks Hadingus to insert under the corpse’s tongue, so that the dead may be forced to speak. It is not uncommon in Nordic texts that a dead spirit is summoned from its grave to speak – as Odin does in Vǫluspá, or ‘The Prophecy of the Seeress’. The implication seems to be that the dead cannot lie. Nor can they hide anything; once summoned and commanded, their only choice is to disclose the required information, however reluctant they themselves may feel. The corpse, though enraged by Harthgrepa’s spells, speaks of Hadingus and Harthgrepa’s next adventure: they will encounter an apparition, ‘a hand of enormous magnitude creeping right inside their small hut’; Hadingus shall survive, but Harthgrepa will die – her love and protection of Hadingus angers her own race; now they seek her destruction. Everything turns out as the dead prophecies.
Hadingus’s second experience happens a few years later, just after his wedding. He rescues Regnhilde, daughter of King Håkon of the Nitherians, from a giant, and therefore wins the maiden’s hand in marriage. While he still stays at King Håkon’s court as a guest, he one day spots a woman ‘bearing stalks of hemlock’ at a feast. Marvelled by the fresh plants, Hadingus desires to know how the woman came by the hemlock in the dead of the winter. Instead of answering him straightaway, the woman decides to show him.
Hence begins Hadingus’s journey to the underworld, which is thought to have been modelled on Aeneid, with the woman being a Sibyl-figure. Having gone through ‘a smoky veil of darkness’ that apparently serves as the border between this world and the next, they follow an ancient path among many travellers, until they reach a sunny region, where the hemlock comes from. Then they cross a bridge over a river with various kinds of weapons flown in it. On the other side, two mighty armies are clashing against each other. Who are these people? Hadingus asks. They are people who died by the sword, his guide tells him. Day after day, they replay the scene of their destruction, trying to ‘equal their activity of their past lives’. At last, they reach a wall that they cannot cross. The woman kills a rooster that she happens to be carrying and toss the body over the wall. The rooster is resurrected and crows loudly from within. This is the true realm of the dead, where the dead cannot die, and a point of no return for Hadingus, who is still alive.
On his return, Hadingus sets off to his homeland (for a second time) with his wife. Although Saxo says no more about Hadingus’s trip to the Underworld, this episode harks back to his first encounter with the dead on his first return to Denmark. Considered together, they not only show an interesting parallel but also a sense of progression: Hadingus’s first experience with death and afterlife is only superficial. It coincides with the death of a mother-figure, symbolising the death of the young hero’s infancy and heralding the young hero’s come-of-age. The second encounter sees the transition from youth to adulthood. This time he descends deeper, gaining a fuller picture of the world of the dead. It takes place when Hadingus will be married, established, and soon to be king – as if, once you have understood death and made peace with mortality, you can now focus on living a worthy life.
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