Ráðbod of Frisia
Whatever the provenance of the source itself, its subject matter rings of authenticity and mirrors heathen values in its descriptions of Duke Ráðbod. Moreover, the parallels to several episodes in Icelandic sagas verifies the essential validity and genuine nature of this saga that comes to us through hostile witnesses. That hostility must have been tempered with some sort of admiration for ancestors as well, for even in its Christianized form, the story has that kind of spice and panache that heathens loved, and which even their Christianized descendants still relished. So authentic is the sagaic flavor in this hagiography that Gerhard Eis, in his Jahrhunderts, aus Legenden erschlossen (Berlin, 1933, pp. 9-26), went so far as to suggest that the Life of Saint Wulfram drew on an old German poem.
The themes we discover in this purloined story are : 1) Strong affection for the ancestors and adherence to their ways, 2) Supernatural insistence to remain within the heathen ways, and 3) a dream-guide who shows one soon doomed to die those golden underworld abodes which have been prepared for them. I have translated these tales here because they are important documents of heathen sensibility that are owed deep study and contemplation.
In the first tale, told in Chapter Nine of the Vita Vulframni, Duke Ráðbod refuses baptism when he is told that his illustrious heathen ancestors will not join him in heaven :
Praefatus autem princeps Rathbodus, cum ad percipiendum baptisma inbueretur, percunctabatur a sancto episcopo Vulframno, iuramentis eum per nomen Domini astringens, ubi maior esset numerus regum et principum seu nobilium gentis Fresionum, in illa videlicet caelesti regione, quam, si crederet et baptizaretur, percepturum se promittebat, an in ea, quam dicebat tartaream dampnationem. Tunc beatus Vulframnus : "Noli errare, inclite princeps, apud Deum certus est suorum numerus electorum. Nam praedecessores tui principes gentis Fresionum, qui sine baptismi sacramento recesserunt, certum est dampnationis suscepisse sententiam ; qui vero adhinc crediderit et baptizatus fuerit, cum Christo gaudebit in aeternum". Haec audiens dux incredulus -- nam ad fontem processerat -- et, ut fertur, pedem a fonte retraxit, dicens, non se carere posse consortio praedecessorum suorum principum Fresionum et cum parvo pauperum numero residere in illo caelesti regno ; quin potius non facile posse novis dictis adsensum praebere, sed potius permansurum se in his, quae multo tempore cum omni Fresionum gente servaverat. ... rege in paganismo perseverante... (Vita Vulframni, ch.9.)
"Prince Ráðbod, once he had gained initial instructions, but before he received baptism, hesitated before the holy bishop Wulfram bound him to take an oath in the name of the Lord, asking where his ancestors, the multitude of kings and leaders and nobles of the Frisian people were, and if he believed and promised himself unto baptism, would he see them in the heavenly district, or if they went to that damnation which is said to be in Tartarus [Christian Hell, but Greek equivalent of Niflhel]. Thereupon, the blessed Wulfram : "Do not allow yourself to go astray, renowned prince ; it is certain that the multitudes of his elect are at the house of God, but on the other hand, your predecessors, the leaders of the Frisian people, who passed away without the sacrament of baptism, have certainly received the sentence of damnation. However, whomever henceforth believes and is baptised, will rejoice with Christ eternally." Hearing this, the Duke was incredulous -- for as he advanced upon the font, as it were, he withdrew his foot, saying that he himself would not be able to be without the fellowship of his earliest Frisian predecessors and with a multitude of unimportant men of little worth residing in that heavenly kingdom ; and in fact, he was by no means easily able to submit his approval to the new doctrines, which were far from being better, for it was preferable to remain himself in that condition preserved for the multitude of all the Frisian people. ... The king persevered in his paganism."
Imagine that modern-day America had never been Christianized, but that our folk heroes remained the same, when Christian missionaries arrived to persuade us into converting. Upon asking them whether George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, Patrick Henry, Thomas Paine, Daniel Boone, John Brown, Walt Whitman, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Geronimo, Henry David Thoreau, Martin Luther King, Jr., and all the other great and noble founding fathers would be discovered in heaven, imagine that they said no, and in fact, that they would all be found in hell. How incredibly insulting and patently false that would seem, for the deeds of these men proved themselves, and their place in the hall of beneficence is self-evident. If nobility of this calibre are not to be found in the Christian afterlife, what kind of place is it? Better to cleave to those of known noble virtues, whatever afterlife condition to which they may be assigned. Indeed, as Saxo demonstrates in Book One of his Gesta Danorum, in the heathen afterlife, praetextatos amictosque ostro proceres conspicantur, "one could see noble youth and the leading men of the country robed in purple garments" in aprica ... delata ...gramina, "sunny regions overflowing with green herbs". Heathens expected to meet the greatest nobles of their folk in the afterlife.
But if one is to exchange the certainty of fellowship with virtuous and inspiring ancestors for the company of multitudes of strangers of quite unproven worth, even heaven is not compensation enough for this impoverishment. Ráðbod had a strong sense of patriotism and a generous affection for his people, and could not agree with any doctrine that would try to transform men of worth and good will into sinners to be cast out of the places of bliss. Such a doctrine seemed inferior to the heathen teachings, where one would have the opportunity to converse with the greatest and bravest minds of all time. Who would give up such a treasure-chest for the uncertainty of a random rabble?
Ráðbod is clear : he states that he is literally incapable of abandoning the convivial and festive communion of his ancestors from earliest of days, and thus will remain with his people. In choosing loved ones and those renowned for their admirable deeds over abstract and narrow doctrines, Ráðbod speaks for the hearts of many of us.
In the second tale, Ráðbod is a bit older and has succumbed to an illness, whereupon in a dream he encounters his fylgia, his guardian-dís, who, like the dream-woman in Gísli saga Súrssonar, shows him the beautiful home that has been prepared for him in the afterlife. The Christian redactor of the tale, unable to bear the native lore of the fylgia, interprets this figure as the Devil in disguise. This is a common Christian translation of the heathen concept that we also find in AElfric's description of witches who go hamfaring with the help of a fetch he identifies with the Devil.
Vita Vulframni, Ch. X :
Nam in aegritudine positus, de qua et vitae praesentis lucem clausit, perpetuasque averni descendit ad umbras, dum sopore deditus foret, deceptor hominum diabolus, qui etiam Dei omnipotentis permissu in angelum se transfigurat lucis, ei apparuit diademate aureo cum fulgentibus gemmis capite opertus, vesteque auro textili toto amictus corpore : diuque attonitus praefatus princeps diligenter in eum intendebat stupens ac tremebundus, admirans cujus speciei ac virtutis esset qui sibit apparebat nuntius.
Isque multimodae artis nocendi saevissimus draco inquit ad eum : Dic, quaeso, vivorum fortissime, quis te ita seduxit, ut a cultura deorum et religione praedecessorum tourum velis recedere? noli ita, obsecro, agere, sed in his quae hactenus tenuisti culturis deorum permane, ibique ad domos aureas aeternaliter mansuras, quas tibi in proximo sum daturus, ut meorum verborum dictis adstruam fidem. Quapropter eras accersiens Vulframnum doctorem christianorum, inquire ab eo ubinam sit illa mansio aeternae claritatis quam te pollicetur, si christianem susceperis dogma, in caelestibus habiturum. Quam quum demonstrare nequiverit, utriusque partis mittantur legati, eroque dux itineris et demonstrabo illis mansionem eximiae pulcritudinis ac fulgoris immensi, quam tibi post modicum sum daturus.
Qui evigilans sancto potifici Vulframno cuncta per ordinem pandit. At ille congemiscens ejus damnationi, ait : Haec illusio diaboli est, qui omnes vult perire, et neminem salvari. Quapropter salva temetipsum, vir nobilis, credendo in Christum, et festina ad fontem baptismi in quo est remissio omnium peccatorum, et nullo modo fidem accomodes verbis diaboli mendacibus. Ipse est enim seductor qui universum seducit orben, qui propter suam superbiam de alto caeli culmine prostratus ruit in terram, et ex angelo benigno daemon teterrimus effectus est. Cujus invidia mors introivit in orbem terrarum, dum primo homini concupiscentiam docuit, atque ad inobedientiae culpam traxit. Nam qui promittit aureas mansiones largiri sibi credentibus, tartareas potius inferi deducit ad sedes, foetidumque lacum Cocyti, unde ut ab his poenis eripi valeas, et bonis frui aeternalibus, festina in Christo baptizari, in quo est remissio omnium peccatorum, et per quem vitae caelestis tribuitur ingressus.
Haec et hujusmodi plura prosequente sancto pontifice, respondit praedictus incredulus princeps omnia se facturum quae jubebat, si illa demonstraretur a suo Deo mansio, quam sibit largiturum spoponderat. Quumque insuperabilem in cunctis sacerdos Christi animum ilius cerneret, ne a gentilibus alia fingerentur pro aliis misit continuo cum quodam Fresione suum diaconum.
Qui quum paululum ab oppido processissent, obvium sibi reperiunt in humana effigie quemdam intineris comitem, qui dixit eis : Properamini cito nam ostensurus sum vobis mansionem eximiae pulcritudinis, quae praeparata est a Deo suo Rathbodo principi. Qui ducem ac comitem intineris prosequentes, loca diu peragrant incognita, donec viam ingredientes latissimam, diversorum generibus marmorum eam cernunt polito opere decoratam videntque a longe domum auream, ac perveniunt usque ad plateam quae ante praefatam domum sita erat, et ipsa auro gemmisque strata. Intrantes quoque in domum aurei splendoris et incredibilis pulcritudinis, adspiciunt thronum mirae magnitudinis. Tum ductor itineris : Haec est, inquit, domus, et ista est pulcherrima sedes, quam post ejus mortem principi Rathbodo Deus suus largiturum se spopondit.
"For in a position of sickness from which the light of his present life was waning, and everlasting hell descending to cast a shadow upon him, he was thrown into a deep sleep, where the Devil, the deceiver of humankind, whom even all-mighty God allows to transform himself into an angel of light, appeared before him wearing a golden crown with glittering gems and amber covering his head, and a robe woven of gold wrapped around his entire body ; and for a long time the astonished before-mentioned prince was completely shaken as he trembled in attentive and utter astonishment, regarding with wonder the beauty and power which had appeared as a messenger.
And with manifold skill in harming, the savage dragon said, "Answer what I ask : living strongly and boldly, who has thus led you astray that you would wish to withdraw from the worship of your Gods and the religion of your ancestors? Refuse this, I implore thee! Drive it away! But remain in the worship of the Gods which you have held up till now, and thereupon in golden houses you shall abide forever, which I have bestowed upon thee in the life that follows. To provide faith in the words which I declare, why, send for Wulfram, the Christian doctor, and inquire from him where in the world is that eternally bright home in the heavens which you have been promised to hold if you accept the Christian dogma. When he cannot show it to you, send messengers from both faiths, and I will be your guide on the journey, and reveal that home of exceptional beauty and immeasurable splendor and radiance which I will bestow upon thee in just a short amount of time."
When he awoke, he found Saint Wulfram, and explained everything that had been arranged. But he sighed deeply at that damnation, saying, "This is an illusion of the devil, who wishes for all men to die and none to be saved. Wherefore, save yourself, noble man, believe in Christ and hurry to the baptismal font, in which there is forgiveness for all sins, and in no way adapt your faith to the lying devil. He himself in fact is the seducer of the entire world, who because of his arrogance, was struck down from the high peaks of heaven, and fell down to earth, and from a kind angel was proven to be an ugly and disgraceful being, who out of hate brought death into the world while teaching the first human beings desire for worldly things and to drag themselves into the error of disobedience. As for the golden abodes which, confiding in you, he promised to lavish upon you, it is rather to the homes of Tartarus below that he drags you, and the foul-smelling lake of Cocyx. Whence, prevail, and rescue thyself from this punishment and enjoy everlasting good, hastening to baptise thyself in Christ, in whom there is remission of all sins, and through whom one may embark on an allotment of heavenly life."
In this way the holy bishop described the situation in more than enough detail. The before-mentioned disbelieving prince answered that he would order all men to do so, if he was first shown that home which his God had promised to lavish upon him. And when the priest of Christ discerned that his mind was inconquerable in this regard, he sent a heathen on behalf of the others as an attendant, a certain number of Frisians, and his own deacon.
When they had advanced a little from the town, they discovered on the path in human form that travelling companion who said to them, "Hurry up, and set yourself in motion, for I will reveal to you that home of extraordinary beauty, which has been prepared by the God of Prince Rathbod," whereupon the guide and travelling companion escorted them, travelling over unknown territories for quite some time, until they came upon a wide and spacious road, which they could see was polished with diverse kinds of marble, adorned with beautiful work ; and they saw, a ways off, all the way up the street which before has been mentioned, a golden house, and they were permitted to arrive at that house which was strewn with gold and gems. And actually entering into the golden house, with its incredible beauty and brilliance, they gazed upon a throne of remarkable size. Then their guide on the journey said, "This is the home, and that is the handsome and noble residence, which after his death, the God of Prince Rathbod has promised to grant him."
The story ends somewhat predictably for a Saint's Tale :
Et diaconus obstupefactus in his quae viderat, dixit : Si a Deo cunctipotente facta sunt ista, perpetuo maneant : si autem a diabolo, cito dispereant. Et vallans se continuo sanctae crucis munimine, dux itineris qui videbatur homo, evanescendo transiit in diabolum, et domus aurea versa est in lutum : remanseruntque hi duo simul, Fresio videlicet et diaconus in medio locorum palustrium, quae plena erant longissimis rhamneis virgultis...
"And the deacon, stunned at what he say, said, "If this is made by Allmighty God, it will abide forever : but if by the devil, it will quickly be destroyed. And immediately fortifying himself with the holy cross as a defense, the guide on the journey who they had considered a man vanished, changed into the devil, and the golden house was changed into mud : and the two Frisians, as well as the deacon, remained behind in the middle of a marshy place which was full of tall thorny trees and brushwood."
The fairy-tale nature of this ending cannot be ignored, with gold being turned into mud, and beautiful palaces disappearing into wilderness, the latter trope being found at the end of Gylfaginning with King Gylfi, the finale of Thor's adventure into the land of Utgard-Loki, and Saxo's description of Hodur's encounter with a number of malevolent valkyries in the woods in Book Three of his Gesta Danorum. Moreover, the shyness of the fairy-folk to the sign of the cross is also a legendary motif of fairy tales. These themes have all been subtly refitted and shaped to fit Christian ends, but their grounding in indigenous folkloric forms is certain.
About loca diu peragrant incognita, the "unknown territories which they travelled over for some time", we are later told triduoque immensi laboris iter conficientes revertuntur ad oppidum, "and they had to undertake the immense labor of a journey of three days to return to the town", so it was a difficult trek that took over three days. Three days is an archetypal time period in many cultures for how long it takes the spirit of the dead to reach the underworld. When they reach there, the polished and embellished marble roads, not to mention the houses strewn with gold and gems bespeak of the Glœsisvellir of Norse myth, the "Glittering Plains" or "Beautifully-Adorned Fields", near which the Odainsaker, the "Acres of the Undying" lie.
As mentioned previously, the tale of the supernatural guide, described in this saga as unto an angel of light crowned with a gleaming diadem and wrapped in a golden robe, who is first met in a dream, and then leads one to underworld abodes of the ancestors, is also featured in Gísli saga Súrssonar, which is worth quoting here in detail for comparison, especially as it features skaldic verse which in all likelihood far predates the prose saga, and thus is an important and unique window onto actual heathen belief, composed in heathen times.
In Gísli saga Súrssonar, Chapter 30, we find the following :
Svo er sagt að nú eru eigi meir eftir en tveir vetur þess er draumkonan sagði hann mundu lifa. ... Einhverja nótt er það enn að Gísla dreymir að konan sú hin betri kom að honum. Hún sýndist honum ríða gráum hesti og býður honum með sér að fara til síns innis og það þekkist hann. Þau koma nú að húsi einu, því er nær var sem höll væri og leiðir hún hann inn í húsið og þóttu honum þar verða hægindi í pöllum og vel um búið. Hún bað þau þar vera og una sér vel, "og skaltu hingað fara og þá er þú andast," sagði hún, "og njóttu hér fjár og farsælu." Og nú vaknar hann og kvað vísur nokkrar eftir því sem hann dreymdi:
"So it is said that his dream-woman told him that now there would be no more than two winters after this that he should live. ... One night Gisli dreamed again that the better woman came to him. She appeared to him riding a grey horse and bid him to fare with him to her home, and he consented to that. They came now to one house which was an abode nearly like a hall, and she led him into the house, and he thought there were comfortable pillows on the raised floors of the hall and that it was well-adorned. She prayed they would be there and enjoy each other well, "and thou shalt fare hence when thou givest out thy last breath," sayeth she, "and enjoy here wealth and the blessings of happiness." And now he awakened and afterwards chanted certain verses according to what he had dreamed :
[Skaldic poetry is notoriously difficult to translate, and some of my rendition here is approximate, but I've managed the gist here, as close to the literal translation as possible]
Heim bauð með sér sínum / saum-Hlökk gráum blakki, / þá var brúðr við beiði / blíð, loftskreyti ríða; / mágrundar, kvazk mundu, / mank orð of þat skorðu, / hneigi-Sól af heilu / hornflæðar mik græða.
"To her home the needle-valkyrie bade me ride on her grey, dun-colored horse ; then was the prayed-for bride blithe, adorned with praise like the sky ; the kinswoman said she would -- I remember the words she stipulated about this -- she-who-kneels-to-the-sun, heal me from the horn-flood of life-force."
Dýr lét drápu stjóra / dís til svefns of vísat / lægis elds, þars lágu, / lítt týnik því, dýnur; / ok með sér en svinna / saums leiddi mik Nauma, / sákat hól í hvílu, / hlaut skáld sæing blauta.
"Deer-like Lady-of-Sleep, let the praise-poem steer me, showing where lay the fire-of-the-sea on a down bed, accounting this a small loss, for the weaving-woman-of-rejuvenating-youth allotted the skald a soft bed, and led me go to bed in hall."
Hingat skalt, hvað hringa / Hildr at óðar gildi, / fleina þollr, með Fullu / fallheyjaðar deyja; / þá munt, Ullr, ok öllu, / ísungs, féi þvísa, / þat hagar okkr til auðar / ormláðs, ok mér ráða.
"Hence shall the spear-tree [warrior] die, falling in battle, his poetic-soul recompensed by the ring-Hildr [valkyrie-of-rings] ; with the goddess then you shall, Ullr, manage Isung's wealth and all the treasure of the worm-lands, and guide me."
His fylgia, called here a dýr, an animal or deer, is consistently portrayed as weaving, as is proper for one who, serving the norns, watches over the fate of her charge.
She guides him to his afterlife home, riding on her horse. The home is well-adorned with cushions and glittering with gold, almost as large as a hall, and although he will fall in battle and die, this is accounted a small loss, for she shall share with him the life-rejuvenating fluids of the the great underworld mead-horn and restore him to health, where, amidst comforts and pleasures, he shall live with his spirit-bride and guide her as she guided him in life.
But this blissful couple shall not be alone. On all sides of their home lie friends and kinsmen, who gather from their respective homes in an immense hall of cheer and merriment. In Chapter 22 of Gísli saga Súrssonar , we find the following :
En það dreymdi mig nú að eg þóttist ganga að húsi einu eða skála og inn þóttist eg ganga í húsið og þar kenndi eg marga inni, frændur mína og vini. Þeir sátu við elda og drukku...
"And now I dreamed that I seemed to walk to a house or hall and then I seemed to walk into the house and there I knew many who were in there, my kinsmen and friends. They sat against the fire and drank..."
There follows a skaldic verse to the same effect : Fold, komk inn þars eldar,/ unnfúrs, í sal brunnu, / eir várum þar aura, / einn ok sex, at meini; / sák blíðliga báðar / bekksagnir mér fagna; / hróðrdeilir bað heilan / hvern mann í því ranni.
Which translates roughly as, "To the Land of the fire-of-the-waves [golden land, Glœsisvellir] I came, where fires burned in the hall, one and six, to my distress ; there the Healing-Goddess-of-Gold brought springtides ; saw I on both sides of the benches people saying to me joyful greetings and blithely giving hospitable entertainment ; the praise-dealer bid hail to every man in that large house."
There, in the after-life, in a grand hall glittering with gold, his friends and kinsmen blithely entertain themselves and give him joyful greetings, drinking and toasting to each other's health. The comparison with what Ráðbod's shining and golden-clad guide shows him is a complete match, and it is worth noting the continuity between a Vita written some time in the 780's (and speaking of events close to one hundred years beforehand) and sagas written in the 1200s (and speaking of events close to two hundred years beforehand).
But we also find evidence of troubled dreams around conversion in the sagas, where there are visitations from heathen gods who are displeased with the faithlessness of abandoning the old ways of the ancestors. One of the prominent examples of this is found in Flóamanna saga, Chapter 20:
Nú kom kristni á land og tók Þorgils í fyrra lagi sið kristinn og hélt vel trú sína. Og er hann hafði við kristni tekið þá dreymdi hann einhverja nótt að Þór kæmi að honum með illilegu yfirbragði og kvað hann sér brugðist hafa "og hefir þú illa úr ráðið, valið mér það úr þínu fé er þú áttir verst til. Þú kastaðir silfri því í fúla tjörn er eg átti og skal eg þar í móti koma."
"Now came Christianity to the land and Thorgils was amongst the first to go into Christianity and hold it well as his faith. And when he had taken with Christianity, then he dreamt one night that Thor came to him with an ill demeanor adn said that he had broken faith with him "and thou hast undertaken ill, choosing for me that out of thine wealth which thou hast the worst. Thou cast the silver into a foul lake which I had and I shall come in against that."
Flóamanna saga, Chapter 21 :
Þorgils ... dreymir hann að maður kemur að honum mikill og rauðskeggjaður og mælti: ..."Alla stund hefir þú mér verið gagnstæðlegur þóttú værir heiðinn maður en oss er mikill missir orðinn að siðaskipti þínu. Áður var allt fólk leitandi til vors trausts og fulltings og ertu sem þeir er oss vilja þyngst og mun illa farast ef þú vilt eigi aftur til mín hverfa um átrúnað. Mun eg þá enn um sjá yðar ráð."
"Thorgils dreamed that a man came to him, mighty and red-bearded and declared : "Always will thou have to defend against me unless you become a heathen man, whose word we have mightily lost in thy change of faith. Before were all folk seeking to stay in our protection and assistance, and thou art like those who will us ill, yet ill will happen if thou wilt not after this turn around to belief in me. I will then look after thee with good counsel.""
We mustn't take such statements too literally ; this is, after all, not Thor, but a dream about Thor, but it does indicate the troubled state of ambivalence that new converts felt, and guarantees that the dream-figure of Ráðbod represents a genuine phenomenon.
Set against this sagaic background, it is evident that the story told in Vita Vulframni of Duke Ráðbod has authentic heathen provenance and bespeaks ancient heathen notions about the afterlife. That many would find these more attractive than that offered by the new faith is no surprise. Amongst heathens, it is the merit of a person's deeds that guarantee them a good place in the afterlife, where they will be found amongst their kinsmen. In Christianity, not only is belief elevated over deeds, but the notion of forgiveness allows those whose deeds have proven them to be of questionable or negative worth to find audience with the divine, while those whose deeds have been laudable yet who have clung to different beliefs may find themselves cut off from their kinsmen and cast into places of punishment.
Ráðbod for one, surveying what was large and magnaminous, and what was petty and narrow, knew which was the nobler path, and stayed true to it.
all translations copyright 2010 by Siegfried Goodfellow