Valhalla (pronounced “val-HALL-uh”; Old Norse Valhöll, “the hall of the fallen”) is the hall where the god Odin houses the dead whom he deems worthy of dwelling with him.
According to the Old Norse poem Grímnismál (“The Song of the Hooded One”), the roof of the “gold-bright” Valhalla is made of shields, and has spears for its rafters. Seats made of breastplates surround the many feasting tables of the vast hall. Its gates are guarded by wolves, and eagles fly above it.
The dead who reside in Valhalla, the einherjar, live a life that would have been the envy of any Viking warrior. All day long, they fight one another, doing countless valorous deeds along the way. But every evening, all their wounds are healed, and they are restored to full health. They surely work up quite an appetite from all those battles, and their dinners don’t disappoint. Their meat comes from the boar Saehrimnir (Old Norse Sæhrímnir, whose meaning is unknown), who comes back to life every time he is slaughtered and butchered. For their drink they have mead that comes from the udder of the goat Heidrun (Old Norse Heiðrun, whose meaning is unknown). They thereby enjoy an endless supply of their exceptionally fine food and drink. They are waited on by the beautiful Valkyries.
But the einherjar won’t live this charmed life forever. Valhalla’s battle-honed residents are there by the will of Odin, who collects them for the perfectly selfish purpose of having them come to his aid in his fated struggle against the wolf Fenrir during Ragnarok – a battle in which Odin and the einherjar are doomed to die.
How Did One Gain Entrance to Valhalla?
The only Old Norse source that provides a direct statement about how people gained entrance to Valhalla is the Prose Edda of Snorri Sturluson, a thirteenth-century Icelandic scholar. Snorri wrote many generations after Norse paganism had given way to Christianity and ceased to be a living tradition, and he often went out of his way to artificially systematize the disparate material in his sources (many of which we, too, possess). According to Snorri, those who die in battle are taken to Valhalla, while those who die of sickness or old age find themselves in Hel, the underworld, after their departure from the land of the living.
Yet Snorri blatantly contradicts this statement in his account of the tale of the death of Baldur, who was killed violently and was nevertheless borne to Hel. No other source makes this distinction – and several offer further examples to the contrary, some of which we’ll explore below. This neat, tidy distinction between Hel and Valhalla is certainly an invention of Snorri’s – a product of his tendency to attempt to systematize Norse paganism, which was never a neat, tidy system while it was still in practice.
Nevertheless, Snorri probably wasn’t entirely off-base. While entrance to Valhalla seems to have ultimately been a matter of who Odin and his Valkyries chose to live there rather than any particular impersonal standard, it seems reasonable to surmise that Odin would select those who would serve him best in his final battle. The ranks of Valhalla would therefore predominantly be filled with elite warriors, especially heroes and rulers. And, indeed, when Old Norse sources mention particular people residing in Valhalla, they almost invariably fit that description – along with elite practitioners of other roles that the hall of a Viking Age chieftain would have contained, such as the poet Bragi.
Where Was Valhalla Located?
The most famous description of Valhalla in Old Norse literature, that of Grímnismál, portrays it as being located in Asgard, the gods’ celestial fortress.
However, other lines of evidence suggest that it was at least sometimes seen as being located underground, like the more general underworld.
As we’ve noted above, the continual battle that takes place in Valhalla is one of the place’s defining features. The medieval Danish historian Saxo Grammaticus describes the hero Hadding discovering just such a place in the underworld. Furthermore, the very name Valhöll, “the hall of the fallen,” clearly seems related to the name Valhallr, “the rock of the fallen,” a title given to certain rocks and hills where the dead were thought to dwell in southern Sweden, one of the greatest historical centers of the worship of Odin.
So, then, where was Valhalla located? It depends on which source you consult.
Evidently, the Vikings perceived no absolutely firm difference between Valhalla and the other halls of the dead. For more on this point, and for a discussion of Norse beliefs about the afterlife more generally, see Death and the Afterlife.