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11.02.2020

Death and the afterlife

The Vikings’ religion never contained any formal doctrines concerning what happens to someone when he or she dies. In the words of historian H.R. Ellis Davidson, “There is no consistent picture in Norse literary tradition of the fate of the dead,” and “to oversimplify the position would be to falsify it.” The rational order that people today often naively insist on finding in Viking portrayals of the dead simply isn’t there in the sources.

Nevertheless, the picture presented to us by archaeology and the Old Norse literary sources isn’t complete chaos. There are discernible patterns in the way the Norse conceived of death and the afterlife, even though those patterns don’t hold absolutely, and the details of what one source tells us are almost invariably contradicted by another source.

The Land(s) of the Dead

Spiritual parts of the dead were usually thought to end up in a spiritual otherworld of some sort or another (with some exceptions that we’ll explore below).

The most famous of these dwelling-places of the dead is undoubtedly Valhalla (Old Norse Valhöll, “the hall of the fallen”), the resplendent hall of the god Odin. Those chosen by Odin and his valkyries live there as celebrated heroes until they’re called upon to fight by Odin’s side in the doomed battle at Ragnarok, the downfall of the gods and the rest of the universe.

The goddess Freya is said to welcome some of the dead into her hall, Folkvang (Old Norse Fólkvangr, “the field of the people” or “the field of warriors”). Unfortunately, Folkvang is mentioned so sparsely in the sources that we today don’t have any idea what it was thought to be like.

Those who died at sea – not an uncommon way to go in a seafaring culture like that of the Vikings – are sometimes, but not always, said to be taken to the underwater abode of the giantess Ran.

But the afterlife world to which the dead are most commonly portrayed as going is Hel, a world beneath the ground presided over by a goddess who is also named Hel. In addition to this conception of a general underworld, people from particular families and localities are sometimes depicted as remaining together in a particular place close to where they lived while they were alive – underneath a specific mountain, for example.

And what do the dead do in Hel or the local variations thereof? They typically eat, drink, carouse, fight, sleep, practice magic, and generally do all of the things that living Viking Age men and women did.

The lines between these various abodes of the dead are quite blurry, and there’s no consistent picture of who decides where a particular person goes after death, or how the decision is made.

An oft-repeated line is that those who die in battle are thought to go to Valhalla, whereas those who die of other, more peaceful causes go to Hel. Leaving aside the fact that this excludes all of the other places to which the dead are thought to potentially go, this artificially tidy distinction was first made by Snorri Sturluson, a Christian historian writing in the thirteenth century – many generations after the pre-Christian Norse religion had ceased to be a living tradition.

Snorri is known for attempting to impose a systematization on his source material that isn’t present in his sources (many of which we, too, possess), and this seems to be another instance of that tendency. Snorri himself blatantly contradicts his distinction between Valhalla and Hel in the one substantial account of Hel he provides: the tale of the death of Baldur, Odin’s son, who is killed violently and is nevertheless borne to Hel. No other source makes this distinction – and several contradict it – which means that this snug way of differentiating between who ended up in Hel versus Valhalla is surely an invention of Snorri’s.

Not only is it ultimately impossible to establish a neat set of criteria for how the dead end up where they do – it’s also impossible to cleanly differentiate these places themselves from one another. For example, Valhalla is often depicted as a realm where distinguished warriors engage in a continuous battle, and just such a place is described, in important early sources, as being located beneath the ground – and, intriguingly, without the name “Valhalla” anywhere in the account.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 are we to conclude that Valhalla is simply one particular part of Hel, rather than an independent realm? Not so fast. It’s elsewhere described as being a part of Asgard, the celestial realm of the gods.

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