"The Road to Hel - A Study of the Conception of the Dead in Old Norse Literature"
by Hilda Roderick Ellis Davidson was first published in 1943, and was based on a thesis that H.R. Ellis Davidson
wrote in 1940 for her Ph.D.
to Hel - PDF Book
The Road to Hell, by Hilda R.
What follows is a summary of Hilda Roderick Ellis Davidson's career and written
|Hilda Ellis Davidson
August, 2006 by Jacqueline Simpson
Dr Hilda Ellis Davidson, who died in January 2006, had for many decades been a distinguished scholar in the field
of Scandinavian mythology and religion, whose books reached a wide readership and whose enthusiasm for her subject
was an inspiration to many--myself included. Time and again, over the years, one would hear Hilda gleefully discussing
some new archaeological discovery or theory with the cry, "It's so exciting!" And when she described
it, it certainly was.
Hilda obtained a First Class Honours degree at Newnham College, Cambridge, in English, Archaeology and Anthropology,
after which she studied pagan Scandinavian religion for her doctorate. This resulted in her first book in 1943
(under her maiden name of Hilda Ellis), The Road to Hel: A Study of the Conception of the Dead in Old Norse Literature.
Although an early and imperfect work, it already showed what was to be characteristic of her approach, the use
of written and archaeological evidence of different periods to cast light upon each other. This was a bold innovation,
at any rate in British academia, where Anglo-Saxon and Old Icelandic were at that time taught purely as literary
and linguistic subjects. It was met with disapproval in some quarters. But Hilda continued to work in this method,
combining material from a wide range of sources in her numerous books on various aspects of Germanic paganism,
including The Sword in Anglo-Saxon England (1962), Gods and Myths of Northern Europe (1964), Pagan Scandinavia
(1967), and, with Peter Gelling, The Chariot of the Sun (1969). She also contributed many more specialised papers
to various journals, usually drawing on her knowledge of myth, legend and folklore to interpret some archaeological
In her more recent books, including Myths and Symbols in Pagan Europe (1988), Lost Beliefs of Northern Europe (1993),
and Roles of the Northern Goddesses (1998), she explored a wider field, describing themes and beliefs that were
common to both Celtic and Germanic cultures. Her awareness of this cultural link was reflected in her presence
at the Nordic-Celtic-Baltic Legend Symposiums in Ireland and Copenhagen in the 1990s, although ill-health prevented
her attending the one in Reykjavik in 2005. Another interest was in the history of folklore scholarship itself,
which led to her editing with Carmen Blacker a collection of essays by various contributors on Women and Tradition:
A Neglected Group of Folklorists (2000).
Her earlier academic posts were in London University, first as a lecturer at Royal Holloway College (1939-44) and
then at Birkbeck College. In the 1970s she returned to Cambridge as Lecturer in Anglo-Saxon, Norse and Celtic at
Lucy Cavendish College, of which she was Vice-President from 1975 to 1980.
Hilda had joined The Folklore Society in 1949, and was elected onto its Council (now the Committee) in 1956, at
a time when it was predominantly elderly and undeniably stagnant. Her memories of those days can be read in her
witty yet warm-hearted account, "Changes in the Folklore Society, 1949-1986" (Folklore 98 : 123-30).
Joining forces with other forward-looking members, notably Katharine Briggs and Stewart Sanderson, Hilda played
an important part in the struggle towards modernisation, which culminated in 1967 when Katharine Briggs became
President and Venetia Newall Secretary. In the fruitful and energetic years that followed, Hilda took on the role
of Publications Officer, supervising the newly formed Mistletoe Books series, and editing or co-editing the papers
that resulted from various Folklore Society conferences. She was also active in organising the conferences themselves.
She served as President in the years 1974-6, and the Society prospered under her leadership.
Her deep friendship and admiration for Katharine Briggs led her to write a valuable biography of her in 1988. She
was also a founder-member of the Katharine Briggs Dining Club, a part-social and part-academic organisation. Here
too she organised meetings and conferences, and edited the resulting collections of papers, usually in collaboration
with either Carmen Blacker or Anna Chaudhri. Appropriately, the last of her editorial projects was A Companion
to the Fairy Tale (with Anna Chaudhri) in 2003.
A clear and lively speaker, she was much in demand. I vividly recall a lecture of hers at Bedford College (London)
in 1950 on Anglo-Saxon pattern-welded swords and on Nordic legends about swords and smithying. George Monger recalls
her "stimulating and riveting presentation" on "The Horse in Folklore," given at a folklore
summer school at Keele University in 1970. Such personal memories could easily be multiplied. For many years she
ran the Cambridge Folklore Group, which met monthly at her home during the university terms, and where guest speakers
enjoyed wonderful hospitality from herself and her husband Richard. Throughout all her activities, she was always
encouraging and helpful to anyone who showed an interest in folklore.
COPYRIGHT 2006 Folklore Society
COPYRIGHT 2006 Gale Group
We would like to
personally thank Marc Anderson, the Rights and Permissions Manager for the
New York offices of Cambridge University Press, for allowing us to keep
this PDF version of "The Road to Hel" available here on our
website. It is my understanding that this is the only PDF
version of "The Road to Hel" that is legally available with actual
permission from Cambridge University Press.
Please do not
reproduce or attempt to publish this book without permission from
Cambridge University Press. They still hold the copyright to "The
Road to Hel," and may bring it back into print sometime in the