I’ll Take This Call from Valhalla

With Halloween coming up, how about a post on dead people? Specifically, I’m talking about views of the afterlife in Norse mythology. I’m sure most of you know about the warriors of Valhalla, but most people don’t get to go there. It’s reserved for those who have died in battle, although apparently some great heroes and kings manage to get in no matter how they die. It seems that most of the dead end up in Hel, the dreary realm of the dead located in Niflheim, the Norse underworld.

While the name of this place (with an extra L) has come to refer to the domain of demons and wicked spirits in Christianity, I don’t get the impression that the Norse Hel was especially bad. I get the impression that it was one of the typical dull worlds of the dead where nothing ever really happens, like the early Jewish Sheol or the Greek Plains of Asphodel. According to Wikipedia, the historian and politician Snorri Sturluson referred to Hel as the place where evil people go after death, but Snorri is thought to have rearranged a lot of ancient Norse religion to meet his own ends. Writing from a Christian perspective in the thirteenth century, he regarded the old gods as humans who had been deified, and hence didn’t always represent traditional myths in their original context. Anyway, Hel was ruled by a giantess also named Hel, who was the daughter of Loki, and was probably a fairly late part of Norse mythology. Snorri’s Prose Edda describes her as being half black and half flesh-colored (the Vikings presumably hadn’t encountered too many Africans at this point), with a fierce and downcast expression.

I can’t help imagining that she looked a little like this:

Her servants are Ganglati and Ganglöt, both basically meaning “lazy walker.” Her home furnishings have rather depressing names as well, including her dish Hunger and knife Famine.

Valhalla was, as you probably know, Odin‘s hall, and it was here that the greatest warriors afterlived an afterlife of feasting and fighting. They ate the flesh of the beast Sæhrímnir, identified by Snorri as a boar, although its name suggests that it is actually a sea monster. That makes me think of the Jewish belief that the righteous will consume Leviathan during the Messianic Age. Regardless of what kind of animal Sæhrímnir actually is, his body regenerates daily. I’ve seen it said that the warriors themselves also do, if they somehow manage to destroy each others’ bodies during their combat. They drink mead that flows from a goat’s udders, while Odin himself drinks only wine. The dead warriors are known as Einherjar, and are brought to Valhalla by the Valkyries, warrior women who scout the battlefields for the greatest fighters among the dead.

In the down time, they apparently serve as barmaids.

Odin’s purpose in gathering the Einherjar is so they can fight by his side during Ragnarok, the epic war at the end of the nine worlds. Since everyone perishes at Ragnarok aside from a lucky few and the gods are aware of this, I’m not entirely sure why all these warriors are necessary, but maybe Odin just wants company.

As I mentioned in last week’s mythology post, not all of the slain warriors end up in Valhalla. Roughly half of them come to afterlive with Freyja in the field of Fólkvangr. I’m not sure whether these warriors also are to participate in Ragnarok, but considering how all-encompassing the battle is said to be, I would imagine they are. This Wikipedia page gives some more information on the beliefs regarding death in ancient Scandinavian religion. One particularly interesting item for me is Helgafjell, a mountain mentioned as an abode of the dead in early sources. The entry suggests that the mountain was a real place, so it seems quite likely to me that the myths regarding it became less prominent once it was actually explored, and the realms of the dead were instead transferred to other worlds that could not be reached by physical means. That’s a quite common development in mythology and religion, after all. The page also says that the Vikings, like the ancient Egyptians, believed that possessions and slaves could enter the afterlife with their owners. That’s why, when a Viking’s body was cremated, certain goods would be burned along with them.

While I can’t help but find a certain amount of coolness in the portrayal of Valhalla and its warriors, it certainly wouldn’t be any place for a guy like me.

As I examine other beliefs about the afterlife, I’ll have to see which ones appeal to me the most. As of now, I have to suspect reincarnation might be the winner. The afterlives that involve an eternal paradise sound tempting at first, but it just seems like they’d leave you feeling kind of empty after a few hundred years. Not to mention that you usually have to meet strict qualifications to get to these places, and as an atheist, I probably don’t meet most of them.

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5 Responses to I’ll Take This Call from Valhalla

  1. vilajunkie says:

    To be fair, Hel isn’t just half-white and half-black, she’s half-beautiful woman and half-rotting corpse. I don’t remember what half is what color, but corpses can be black OR white/pale green depending on how far along the decomposition is and how the person died and whether or not they were embalmed. Oh, and not everyone was given a ship-burial by sea, with the ship in flames as it’s carried along the tide. I think only kings and very important warriors were given that burial, and only at certain periods of history. It was a lot more common for important people to be buried in mounds (barrows), thus the tradition of barrow-wights (aristocratic ghosts haunting the mounds) in Scandinavian folklore and LotR. Sacrifices were often hanged or drowned, probably for Odin and Ran the sea giantess-goddess, respectively. That’s another thing: Sailors were said to go to Ran instead of Odin and serve in her and Aegir’s underwater hall. I think farmers were buried on their property under smaller mounds or under piles of stones, in order to watch over the property as a land-spirit.

    • Nathan says:

      The Wikipedia page makes it sound like, if a dead person was to carry possessions to the next life, they’d be included no matter how the person’s body was dealt with. If they were burned, the grave goods were burned with them. If buried, the goods were buried with them. I would imagine this was usually only the case with rich people, though. It looks like slaves were supposed to be slaves in the next life as well, which really sucks for them. That’s one advantage Christianity had over some of the older religions. Early Christians didn’t condemn slavery, but at least they didn’t say you were going to still be a slave once you got to Heaven.

      • vilajunkie says:

        Well…in some of the more traditional and/or esoteric forms of Christianity, instead of slaves on earth becoming slaves in Heaven and rich people becoming kings in Heaven, EVERYONE will be a slave in a way. I mean, supposedly, once you reach Heaven, yeah you’ll be “one with God”, but that means eternally praising Him and singing His Glory. No wonder no one in Heaven has time for living relatives on earth–they’re all busy brown-nosing God! :P

        I think that’s one of the reasons why I like Buddhism better; everyone gets Enlightened eventually and becomes even higher than the gods themselves. No one has to worship anything once they’re Enlightened, since you’re divine yourself.

      • Nathan says:

        That’s true. I’m not sure sitting through an eternal church service is all that much better than being a slave.

  2. Pingback: Norway Begins | VoVatia

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