The Ancient Heathen Afterlife (Not as Simple as you Think)

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(Photo by Michelle Burgess) 

Perhaps due to my involvement in the Heathen community, combined with my open ties to Loki, I often get asked the question: “Who will you be fighting for at Ragnarökr?”. Usually I get a confused look on my face and answer “Nobody”. The widespread idea of two different afterlives being on opposing sides of an apocalyptic final battle (where immortal beings all end up dying somehow) has always smacked of Medieval Christian influence to me, and it’s an idea I’ve largely rejected. For when you look at our surviving (sort of) primary sources and folklore, ideas of the afterlife were not as cut and dry as we think they were.

Last month, one of the topics that we covered in Old Norse Religion class was the various conceptions of death and the afterlife that were held by ancient Heathens. Though it seems that in American Heathenry (perhaps due to the prevalence of a dualistic afterlife in the American consciousness) there are simple rules for getting into one of 2 afterlives: if you die of natural causes you go to Hel, if you die in battle you go to Valhöll (that last word is pronounced Val-heldt by the way). There is of course the other possibility of entering Freyja’s hall, though that option has always been a bit mysterious. In reality, ideas of these afterlives went through many different evolutions over the years. Not only that, they were far from the only models of the afterlife that existed. There is sometimes an unspoken acceptance that Norse Heathenry was a single tradition, with some differences but pretty much the same rules from place to place. The more I research, the more I find that this idea is completely incorrect. What we call Norse Heathenry is actually an umbrella term for many different religions that were held by many different tribes, describe different afterlives, different conceptions of the gods, different ideas of who the primary god was, different myths, etc etc.

I’d like to assure my readers that I’m not “in the know” of exactly what happens to us after we die. I would like to think that there is an afterlife, and if it isn’t better than our lives here on earth, I hope that it isn’t any worse. What I’m presenting here are simply some of the afterlife models that often get ignored, misrepresented, or simply overlooked in modern Heathen culture.

Hel (The Goddess)

I recently read Christopher Abram’s PhD thesis: “Representations of the Pagan Afterlife in Medieval Scandinavian Literature” (Check it out for yourselves!: http://www.medievalists.net/2012/04/05/representations-of-the-pagan-afterlife-in-medieval-scandinavian-literature/ ), in which he takes a look at the literary sources for Hel and Valhöll. He challenges the idea set forth by Simek and Davdison that Hel was never originally a goddess, but was simply a personification of the world of death invented by Snorri. Considering how women seem to have been deeply connected to ideas of death and have been seen as guardians of the gateways of death since the Scandinavian stone-age, I fully agree that the idea that the Norse people had no goddess of death is ridiculous.  Rather, his evidence shows that in pre-Christian skaldic poetry, Hel is almost exclusively referred to as a person, where in Eddic poetry, it is almost exclusively referred to as a place. For example, in one of these skaldic poems (Ynglingatal 30) Hel is given the kenning hallvarps hlífi-nauma, meaning roughly “the covering-goddess of the throwing of the stone-heap”. As “hlífa” is the Old Norse word meaning “to cover”, Abram’s suggests that this word could be a play on words based around the etymology of the word “Hel” itself. This would make Hel “the coverer”, i.e. the goddess who holds dominion over grave-mounds. Therefore, Hel doesn’t seem to have been considered just a personification of the Underworld, but the personification of death itself.

Does this mean that the idea of a gloomy world of the dead was a later idea than the idea of a goddess of death Herself? Was Hel originally the name of the world of death, or was it named after the goddess later? And what about Snorri’s description of Hel as a goddess who is half alive and half dead? If she is the personification of death, what was this dualistic symbolism actually supposed to say about dying? There are no clear answers here, and things only get murkier the closer you look.

Hel (The Place)

Whether the dark, somber nature of Hel presented in Snorra Edda is of pre-Christian origin has often been questioned, and Abrams makes some interesting ties between Snorri’s vision of Helheimr and hell according to Medieval Christian vision literature. A good example is the dark valley that Hermoðr is said to ride through on the way to Hel, as according to Abrams the dark valley is a standard part of  the Christian landscape found in many of the most popular medieval descriptions of hell, including in Visio Tnugdali, which was a Latin text that had been translated into Old Norse by Snorris’ time.

Another possible influence for Snorri’s vision of Hel was the Norwegian vision poem Draumkvæde, in which a woman named Gudmoer (possibly derived from the Old Norwegian guðs móðir meaning “god’s mother”) guards a supernatural bridge. Abram’s suggests that Snorri may have used this name as his inspiration for the woman guarding the Gjallarbrú (noisy bridge) on the way to Helheimr, and he may have simply switched the elements of the name around to come up with Móðgúðr. Though I think a woman guarding the entrance to the underworld would hardly be a foreign idea in Norse cosmology, the name she is given is suspiciously similar to the one in Draumkvæde, which would have been accessible to Snorri in Norway.

Aside form these smaller details, it seems quite certain that Snorri was attempting to make Helheimr and Valhöll apposing poles in his cosmology, which in itself makes the grim presentation of Hel he gives us rather suspect. Valhöll is a place run by men, Hel is a place run by women. Valhöll seems to be in a world that lies above, Hel is in a world that lies below. Valhöll is for the elite, Hel is for the common (or in some cases, even the undesirable). It therefore seems significant to me that Snorri pits these two world against each other (much like the forces of heaven and hell in the book of Revelation) in his apocalyptic vision of the end of the world. In Völuspá 51, Loki arrives to fight the Æsir with Muspell’s people. “Muspilli” according to Dronke, is “the ancient German term for the dissolution of the earth on Judgement Day, translated into a demonic personality in ON” (see Abram’s thesis). In Snorra Edda, he is supposed to appear to fight Óðinn’s army with all of Hel’s people (which I must point out, makes the original question “Who’s side will I be fighting on” null and void. If you’re following Snorri’s model, all those who die of natural causes and thereby go to Hel will automatically be fighting in Loki’s army. There’s no “choosing” involved here on the part of the humans).

There is also little mention here of the other half of the warriors that Freyja was supposed to have been collecting in Fólkvangr, or to what purpose. We are told that Óðinn is collecting warriors to help him fight The Wolf (Snorri tells us he is gathering forces for Ragnarökr, so it isn’t certain that these two things weren’t mutually exclusive in the minds of older poets). So what are Freyja’s guys doing? Do they fight at Ragnarökr, or is she even involved? We may never know.

Was Snorri’s vision of Hel purposefully created in order to create a good vs evil dichotomy for his apocalyptic narrative, with the “good people” somewhere with Óðinn and the evil and the “meh” people with Hel? Was Hel really as bad as we have been led to believe by Snorri, or was the “underworld” simply imagined as the natural place for people buried in the ground to be? For in Baldrs draumr 6, we’re presented with a glimpse of Hel that doesn’t sound all that bad:

“-for whom are the benches strewn with rings, the platform fairly flooded with gold?”

We know from Eddic and skaldic accounts that Hel apparently has big halls and benches. Was Hel originally seen as a place of rest and feasting that was a nice place to go?

Valhöll

The idea of an afterlife that serve’s as a paradise for the warrior elite seems to have become more prevalent during the Merovingian Period (6th-9th c) when Rome was broken up and there was a new establishment of kings and kingdoms  among the Germanic tribes. The fact that our sources present Valhöll as a place who’s entry was restricted to high-status warrior males may be significant to why it was developed, and in my opinion could demonstrate a pre-Christian origin for the dark veneer that Hel has been painted with in later sources. Going to Valhöll  isn’t determined by the way in which you lived your life, but more specifically to what class you occupied and how you died. And if you were a king, who was attempting to get farmers and common people to join your ranks and fight for you, you had to be able to give them some kind of incentive.

A superior afterlife being promised to those who die in battle is common in more than one warrior culture. The Aztecs, for example, promised their warriors a glorious afterlife with the sun/war god Huitzilopoctli if they died in battle, as apposed to a dismal life in the underworld in which you would eventually waste away to dust, reserved for people who died of sickness or old age. It’s important to remember that political propaganda has existed as long as politics have, and the glorious vision of Valhöll reserved for warrior kings and their followers was possibly meant to off-play the a dismal vision of the underworld for peasants and common people, thus to inspire men to go to battle for their new kings and risk death rather than stay home at their farms and give them the finger.

Ideas of a special paradise for elite warriors may not have been originally Germanic, and it has been pointed out by Ellis Davidson and others that the cult of Mithras and the cult of Óðinn share some suspicious similarities. It’s possible that contact with Rome during the Migration Age (4th-6th c.) may have actually changed Óðinn’s earlier functions, and the cult of Mithras may have been assimilated into the cult of Óðinn by the Germanic tribes who had contact with it in Rome. Anders Kaliff and Olof Sundqvist propose this theory in their article “Odin and Mithras: Religious acculturation during the Roman Iron Age and the Migration Period.” Among the similarities of the two cults are:

- Both were related to military groups connected by a single religious ideology in which loyalty to the king was emphasized.

- Both contained initiation ceremonies connected to animal imagery (for Óðinn these were the Berserkers and the Úlfhéðnar)

-In the cult of Mithras the initiation ceremony included a sword and wreath, and the neophyte suffered a symbolic death. This seems to have been the case as well in the cult of Óðinn, where initiations involving a spear and a symbolic death may have occurred. Only men could be initiated in both cases.

- Óðinn gathered the slain warriors to bring them to a special afterlife. Mithras also escorted his initiates who died in battle to a warrior paradise.

However, dying in battle doesn’t seem to automatically mean that one will go to Valhöll in all cases. Abrams produces examples of Skaldic poetry such as Eiríksmál and Hákonarmál, where kings (even Christian ones) are written into Valhöll by their poets. Bragi the god/poet also appears to be among the warriors in Valhöll in Hákonarmál, though it is quite certain that he himself did not die in battle. The impression one gets is that the people allowed into Valhöll, at least in earlier traditions, are the kings and those elite people in their service (including their warriors); in other words, not just any indiscriminate warrior who died in battle would be chosen to enter the ranks of Valhöll.

To further confuse things, the idea of Valhöll also seems to be dimly connected to Valsgärde in Uppsala Sweden, where many boat graves of kings came to rest. Was this assembled resting place of the Kings the original Valhöll? Óðinn himself gained an obvious tie to the institution of poetry and kingship in the Viking Age, as he states himself when he taunts Þórr in Hárbardsljóð 24: 

“Óðinn gets the noblemen, who fall in the fight, but Þórr gets the race of slaves.”

So what does this mean about Valhöll?  Was it originally designed to represent a Mithric model of an elite military force that was assembled under a king? Was Hel maligned in this tradition in order to inspire men to fight under a king and therefore attain a more favorable afterlife? Was this afterlife really for anyone who died in battle, or was it only for the King and his select elite, and did they need to undergo some kind of an initiation (as in the cult of Mithras) to even be considered?

Reincarnation

To completely complicate things, here is a model of the afterlife that has absolutely nothing to do with Hel or Valhöll. In the last line of Helgakviða Hjörvarðsonar we learn:

“Helgi and Svava are said to have been reincarnated.”

And in the last lines of Helgakviða Hundingsbana II:

There was a belief in the pagan religion which we now reckon an old wives’ tale, that people could be reincarnated. Helgi and Svava were thought to have been reborn. He was Helgi Haddingia-damager, and she was Kara, Halfdan’s daughter, as is told in ‘The Song of Kara’, and she was a valkyrie.”

Woah! What the hell? Where did that come from? How can there be stories of reincarnation, and at the same time be stories about people waiting in Helheimr and Valhöll for the end of the world? And what do you do if you die in battle as an elite warrior in one lifetime, and die of natural causes in the next lifetime? How do you know which side to fight for? Is it best two out of three? It seems that any kind of apocalyptic battle type future, or eternal afterlife in paradise models of the afterlife become muddled up pretty badly once reincarnation comes to join the party. Which is probably why it was at one time rejected from Christian doctrine. So, what does this tell us about the Heathen afterlife? And about Ragnarökr for that matter?

If reincarnation was indeed an accepted idea by some Heathens, does this account for the image of the Goddess Hel being half alive and half dead, to represent the cycle of death and rebirth?

Living in the Hills

To make things even weirder, here come the Icelanders with their very region-specific, unique idea of where people go where they die. In Iceland, it seems to have been popular belief that when a person dies, their spirits went somewhere into the natural landscape (usually mounds or hills) to live. We hear of this in many of the sagas, and as an example, here’s a section from ch. 4 of Eyrbyggja saga (one of my personal favorites):

“Þórólfur called the headland between Vigarfjörður and Hofsvógur Þórsnes. The headland is in the form of a mountain, and Þórólfur invested so much reverence in it that no one was allowed to look towards it without having washed and nothing was allowed to be killed on the mountain, neither man nor animal, unless it died of natural causes. He called this mountain Helgafell (Holy Mountain) and believed that he and all of his family on the headland would go there when they died.”

A similar example is in Njáls saga ch. 78, when a shepherd and a servant woman pass by Gunnar’s mound :

“They thought they saw four lights burning in the mound, and that there were no shadows. They saw that Gunnar was happy and had a very cheerful look. He recited a verse so loudly that they could hear it clearly, even at a distance… Then the mound closed again.”

Even in modern Iceland, there are folk legends that resemble the idea of human spirits being tied to a specific location when they die. When my wife and I went to go visit the Hölavallagarður cemetery in Reykjavik, we learned that when the graveyard was originally built, nobody was actually buried there for a long time because it was popularly believed that the first person to be buried in a graveyard would have to stay there forever to be the graveyard’s guardian. It would then be their job to welcome the spirits of the dead into the graveyard and help them into the afterlife, and people thought this would be a sad job for their relatives to be saddled with: to eternally be between the worlds. Eventually, Guðrún Oddsdóttir was the first person buried there in 1838, and is now recognized as the graveyard guardian to this day. Her headstone (which was a large, ornate bronze one) is featured in the picture at the beginning of this article.

So, if you were to ask an Icelandic farmer in year 900 CE whether or not they had any ancestors in Valhöll, they might look at you in confusion and go “Huh?”

Conclusion

So what, you may ask me, does this tell us about where modern Heathens go when they die? The answer is, not much!  It’s very obvious that ideas of the Old Norse afterlife varied according to time and location, and it’s possible that many of these models were influenced by foreign ideas of death and the afterlife from other cultures.

Considering how uncertain we are of what ancient Heathens really believed about death, especially where ideas of Ragnarökr are concerned, I sometimes get frustrated. I think that by adopting Snorri’s model of the afterlife almost exclusively and without realizing its context, some modern Heathens have also accidentally adopted his personal, “good guys vs bad guys” conception of the afterlife. This has helped to create the unspoken expectation in some people that the “best heathens” go to Valhöll to help Óðinn fight at Ragnarökr (or is it just to fight The Wolf? The sources seem to be unclear as to whether these two things are actually related or not), while the not so great (or even the “bad”) heathens go to Hel, (possibly to live in a hall made out of venomous snakes).

In reality, there are no clear answers in our sources for Old Norse religion as to what awaits us after death, but that gives modern Heathens the exceptional advantage of being able to focus on how we conduct ourselves in the here and now.

 

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5 responses to “The Ancient Heathen Afterlife (Not as Simple as you Think)

    • Good question. In even some of the earliest stone age carvings, it´s very obvious that women were closely associated with the world of the dead as psychopomps and gatekeepers, and the Germanic tribes believed that women where inherently sacred and no army would make any decision without first consulting their female oracles (at least according to Tacitus). Maybe the fact that no women are mentioned in Ragnarökr speaks to the better judgement of the women… lol!

  1. Thank you for raising boatloads of questions. I think part of the necessary work is sussing out where we stand on these, holding several or none of these ideas together. I find it fascinating.
    Thank you for posting this.

  2. Thank you for writing all this up! I love the complexity of our tradition(s) on these questions. Who knows, maybe it’s all true… and maybe none of it is… certainly it is the case that none of us living will ever know for sure what happens when we die, and all of us will know at some point, when it’s too late to tell anyone else what we’ve learned… :)

  3. I’ve always wondered about reincarnation. Since I grew as spiritualist I still believe in such things. I wondered if it existed in Ásatru as well.

    I also remember reading something that sometimes you can go to your patron god’s hall, but it was pretty much about that :P

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