Tribute to the works of Dr. HR E Davidson

Hilda Roderick Ellis Davidson was born at Bebington, Cheshire, in 1914. She was educated at Park High School for Girls, Birkenhead, and Newnham College, Cambridge, where she took Firsts in English and Archaeology. She received her Ph.D in 1940 after three years of research under Professor and Mrs. Chadwick into the pagan beliefs of Scandinavia. She was an assistant lecturer in English at the Royal Holloway College from 1939 to 1944, after which she worked as a part-time lecturer in English at Birkbeck College. Since 1955, she has been engaged in writing and research. She is a Fellow of the Society of Antiquaries and a member of the Council of the Folklore Society. Married with two children, she lives just outside Cambridge." She was a lecturer and held a Calouste Gulbenkian Research Fellowship at the Lucy Cavendish College, Cambridge, and is working on eastern influences on the pre-Christian religion in Northern Europe.

Sometime Marion Kennedy Research Student of Newnham College, Assistant Lecturer in English Royal Holloway College.

[From "The Road to Hel" reprint, 1968].

H.R. Ellis-Davidson is Vice-President of Lucy Cavendish College, University of Cambridge, where she is Director of Studies in Anglo-Saxon, Norse, and Celtic. She teaches and lectures in Old Norse, and her research focuses especially on Saxo Grammaticus and Old Norse mythology and religion.

[From "Edda, A Collection of Essays", 1983].

"Hilda Ellis Davidson past President and now Honorary Member of the Folklore Society" (In a review of "The Concept of the Goddess", 1996)

"Hilda Ellis Davidson is a retired lecturer and former Vice-President of Lucy Cavendish College, Cambridge." (At the Carolina Academic Press website, 2001)

Hilda Ellis Davidson specialised in the detailed study of north European myths, starting with The Road to Hel 1943.In her book The Road to Hel Hilda Ellis-Davidson also remarked that "a fertility religion connected with the worship of the sun, and possibly including … the conception of rebirth … can be seen fully developed in the art and religion of Egypt, and seems to have travelled northward to reach Scandinavia during the Bronze Age … the ship evidently played an important part, for it is shown continually, sometimes together with wheels and sun-discs …."

Davidson, H.R.E. (1968) The Road to Hel: A Study of the Conception of the Dead in Old Norse Literature (Hilda Roderick Ellis), Greenwood Press Publishers, New York

After a number of important studies, culminating with The Lost Beliefs of Northern Europe 1993. Davidson was also a prominent member of the Folklore Society and, during the 1970s, instigated some long-overdue reappraisals of the way British folklore is best studied. Her work is typified by a detailed look at the 'evidence' and a refusal to make this evidence fit into a meta-theory. Instead in her later work she recognises the complexity of beliefs associated with the myths. Although Davidson's approach to myths is rarely cited by other mythologists (and the reason for this maybe more to do with north European myths being fairly incidental to the interests of the 'great men' of mythology), her recognition that there is considerable scope for improvement in the study of myths, and the 'temptation to oversimplify wildly' (1993: 160) is shared by the current generation of mythologists. Davidson's books demonstrate an approach to mythology that is far more rigorous than most of her contemporaries, although her work is not 'overtly' theoretical.

Hilda Ellis Davidson, a distinguished scholar of many years standing, writes (Davidson 1998:11): "If scholars have been somewhat reluctant to explore the symbol of the Goddess there has been plenty of enthusiasm at a more popular level. Robert Graves' book The White Goddess has misled many innocent readers with his eloquent but deceptive statements about a nebulous Celtic goddess in early Celtic literature on which he was no authority". Yet the concluding words of her book again express a positive outcome. Describing the mythical survival of Northern goddesses, she writes: "We can be confident that in this new age the goddesses will be there once more, protective and threatening, with their special gifts and powers. Life could not continue on earth without them". (190 )"

Davidson on Northern Elves

Dr. H. R. Ellis Davidson in Scandinavian Mythology mentions the possibility that the light elves might once have been the same as the fair giants and the dark elves may have been the hostile giants with whom the others were at war, and that the elves, as they passed into folklore became a homelier, smaller people. She also suggests some connection between the elves and dead. In the passage Elves and land-spirits she says:

There seems to be some link between the elves and the dead within the earth, who still benefit men and who may be born again into the world through their descendants. The early King Olaf, thought to be reborn in the person of the Christian King Olaf the Holy, was called 'Elf of Geirstad', and sacrifices were said to be made to him and also the elves dwelling in mounds. Another race of beings linked closely with the earth were the land-spirits, said to follow 'lucky' men and to give help with hunting and fishing. They were believed to dwell in hills, stones and rivers, and they sometimes appeared in animal form or as little men and women. It was said to be forbidden to bring ships into harbour with menacing figure-heads, because they might frighten the land-spirits.

Ref: Ellis Davidson, H. R., Scandinavian Mythology, London, 1967, p. 117

According to the later Scandinavian mythology the light elves, under the dominion of Freyr, one of the Vanir, and the god of vegetation, had already something of the same character as the elves in Elizabethan England, small, tricksy, flower-loving creatures, though in earlier times they had been more various and more beautiful. Their home as Alfheim, one of the nine realms of the world in Scandinavian cosmology. The Saxon elves seem to have been larger and more formidable. There are spells against elfshot in the Anglo-Saxon Charm-books. In Scotland down to the seventeenth century the elves were full-sized and Fairyland was called Elfame.

H.R. Ellis Davidson,in her Myths and Symbols in Pagan Europe, (Syraceuse 1988), pgs 203-204 cites:  “Thor's hammer was marked on boundary stones while the Dagda's club, through its' carriage in a wagon, marked or dug the boundaries of the provinces. This important Gaelic father of the gods was, none the less, a somewhat crude figure even portrayed with his tunic barely covering his bottom. One myth mocks his great appetite and uncouth appearance: Indech and the Fomorians filled a huge hole in the ground with a meaty porridge for the Dagda and threatened him if he did not eat it all. He did indeed eat everything and the Fomorians then laughed at his huge distended belly but, you could say, the Dagda had the last laugh as he still got to have sex with Indech's daughter. A Norse myth tells of Thor cross-dressing as the goddess Freyja, you might say looked ridiculous, to resume his hammer from the giant Thrym and his great appetite was noted with amazement by Thrym.

The Dagda had a great cauldron, one of the great treasures of the Tuatha De Danaan, which was a source of never emptying hospitality. Thor went to obtain a cauldron for Aegir's feast for the gods.”

Hilda Ellis Davidson also writes about the connections between milk and the goddess, citing first the ancient world where for example Hathor appears as a cow goddess; and then surveys in depths the variety of evidence from northern Europe. She makes the point that the dairy was always the women's responsibility and she suggests that there may have been, in Romano-British culture an indigenous dairy goddess. This is a wide-ranging and fascinating survey that will also provide new researchers with a wealth of material for further enquiry. For half a century, Hilda Ellis Davidson has been the foremost English-language scholar of Norse religion. All of her books are worth reading; the three listed below should not be too hard to find and represent some of her best work.

(1941) "Fostering by Giants in Old Norse Sagas", Med. Aev. 10: 70-85.

(1942) "Sigurd in the Art of the Viking Age", Antiquity 16: 216-36.

(1943) The Road to Hel, Cambridge University Press, "Originally part of a thesis accepted in 1940 for the degree of Ph.D. in the University of Cambridge."

(1950) "The Hill of the Dragon" (Anglo-Saxon Burial Mounds), Folklore 61.

(1950) "Gods and Heroes in Stone" In C. Fox and B. Dickens (eds.), The Early Cultures of North-West Europe (H.M. Chadwick Memorial Studies), 123-9, London.

(1958) The Golden Age of Northumbria, Longmans, [a volume in the "Then and There Series"].

(1958) "Weland the Smith," Folklore 69: 145-59.

(1960) "The Sword at the Wedding" Folklore 71, 1-18.

(1962) The Sword in Anglo-Saxon England, Boydell Press, Woodbridge.

(1963) "Folklore and Man's Past", Folklore, 74: 527-44, London.

(1964) Book Review: Myth and Religion of the North by E. O. G. Turville-Petre. London: Weidenfeld and Nicholson (History of Religion), 1964. Antiquity 38: 309-310.

(1964) Gods and Myths of Northern Europe, Penguin Books Ltd, Harmondsworth. (later re-published as "Gods and Myths of the Viking Age,"  Bell Publishing Company, 1980).

(1965) "The Finglesham Man" Sonia Chadwick Hawkes, H.R.E Davidson and C. Hawkes, Antiquity, 39: 17-32.

(1965) "Thor's Hammer", Folklore 76: 1-15.

(1965) "The Significance of the Man in the Horned Helmet", Antiquity 39: 23-7.

(1967) Pagan Scandinavia (Ancient Peoples and Places 58) London.

(1967) "The Anglo-Saxon Burial at Coombe [Woodnesborough], Kent", Medieval Archeology 11: 1-41 (by H.E. Davidson and L. Webster).

(1969) Scandinavian Mythology, Paul Hamlyn, London.

(1969) The Chariot of the Sun and Other Rites and Symbols of the Northern Bronze Age by Peter Gelling and H.E. Davidson, Frederick A. Praeger Publishers, New York.

(1969) "The Smith and the Goddess", Frühmittelalterliche Studiern (University of Münster) 3: 216-26.

(1971) Beowulf and its Analogues by George Norman Garmonsway, Hilda Roderick Ellis Davidson, and Jacqueline Simpson; E. P. Dutton.

(1972) The Battle God of the Vikings, (G.N. Garmonsway Memorial Lecture, University of York, Medieval Monographs I, York.

(1973) "Hostile Magic in the Icelandic Sagas", The Witch Figure, ed. V. Newall (london) 20-41.

(1974) "Folklore and History", Folklore 85.

(1975) "Scandinavian Cosmology" in C. Blacker and M. Loewe's Ancient Cosmologies, 172-97, London. 

(1975) "Folklore and Literature", Folklore 86.

(1976) The Viking Road to Byzantium, Allen and Unwin, London.

(1978) Patterns of Folklore, D.S. Brewer Ltd, Ipswich. [Appears to reprint earlier articles such as "Thor's Hammer" and "The Sword at the Wedding" also includes an essay on "Lady Godiva"].

(1978) "Shape-changing in the Old Norse Sagas" in J.R. Porter's and W.H.S. Russell's Animals in Folklore, 126-42 Folklore Society, Ipswich.

(1978) "Mithras and Wodan", Études Mithraïques 4: 99-110, Acta Iranica, Leiden.

(1979) "Loki and Saxo's Hamlet", The Fool and the Trickster; Studies in Honor of Enid Welsford, ed. P.V.A. Williams (Cambridge) 3-17.

(1979-80) Saxo Grammaticus The History of the Danes, Books I-IX [Peter Fisher Translation]: Edited with Commentary by H.E. Davidson, Woodbridge: Boydell.

(1980) "Wit and Eloquence in the Courts of Saxo's Early Kings", "To be published as part of the Saxo Symposium, University of Copenhagen 1979."

(1980) "Insults and Riddles in the Edda Poems",  Published in Edda, A Collection of Essays, 25-46, University of Manitoba Icelandic Series 4, 1983.

(1981) "The Restless Dead: An Icelandic Story", in H.E. Davidson and W.M.S. Russell's (eds.) The Folklore of Ghosts, Mistletoe Series 15, London Folklore Society.

(1981) "The Germanic World" in M. Loewe and C. Blacker's Divination and Oracles,115-41, London.

(1984) "The Hero in Tradition and Folklore: Papers Read at a Conference of the Folklore Society Held at Dyffryn House, Cardiff, July 1982" (World Bibliographical Series), Folklore Society Library.

(1984) "The Hero as a Fool: The Northern Hamlet", The Hero in Tradition and Folklore, (ed. H.R.E. Davidson) 30-4, (Mistletoe Books, 19, Folklore Soc.) London,

(1988) Myths and Symbols in Pagan Europe, Manchester University Press, Manchester.

(1989) The Seer in Celtic and Other Traditions, ed. by Hilda Ellis Davidson, John Donald Publishers, Ltd., Edinburgh, 1989.

(1989) "Hooded men in Celtic and Germanic Tradition" in G. Davies, Polytheistic Systems, Cosmos 5, 105-124.

(1989) "The Training of Warriors" in S. C. Hawkes Weapons and Warfare in Anglo-Saxon England.

(1990) "Religious Practices of the Northern Peoples in Scandinavian Tradition", Temonos 26:23-24

(1992) "Human Sacrifice in the Late Pagan Period of North-Western Europe" in M.O.H. Carver's The Age of Sutton Hoo: The Seventh Century in North-Western Europe, 331-40, Woodbridge.

(1992) "Royal Graves as Religious Symbols" in W. Filmer-Sankey's Anglo-Saxon Studies in Archeology and History 5, 23-31, Oxford.

(1993) Lost Beliefs of Northern Europe, Routledge, London.

(1993) "The Hair and the Dog", Folklore 104: 151-63 by H. E. Davidson and A. Chaudhri.

(1996) Katharine Briggs: Story-teller, Lutterworth Press.

(1996) "Milk and the Northern Goddess" in S. Billington's and M. Green's The Concept of the Goddess, Routledge, New York. [This work is a tribute to Davidson].

(1998) Roles of the Northern Goddess, Routledge, London.

(2001) "The Wild Hunt" in Supernatural Enemies, Edited by H.E. Davidson and Anna Chaudhri. Carolina Academic Press, Durham, N. C.

(2001) Women and Tradition by Hilda Ellis Davidson and Carmen Blacker, Carolina Academic Press, Durham, N.C.

(2003) A Companion to the Fairy Tale, Hilda Ellis Davidson and Anna Chaudhri, Boydell & Brewer Ltd.

(Date unknown, pre-1980) Author of the article "Hero" in Encyclopedia Brittanica.