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The Norse View on the Afterlife

Updated: Apr 29

One topic that is steadily talked about and debated amongst Norse Pagan groups, is the concept of the afterlife. Where does our Hugr (Consciousness/Spirit) go when we die? Well, worrying about what resting place awaits you after your visit here on Midgard is a very Abrahamic way of thinking first and foremost. Most of us can't help that way of thinking, however, because a large portion of today’s followers of the Old Ways were once belonging to an Abrahamic faith. This article is being written to hopefully help those same people break free from that worry, and understand the life after death in the Norse point of view a little bit better.

In the Norse view, the line between life and death can be blurred, much like the line between the everyday mundane and the spiritual. The Norse did not live their lives a certain way to achieve a good afterlife, and were not punished in the afterlife for living a less than desirable life either, with the possible exception of Nastrond. So the worry of where one would end up when leaving Midgard was not as prominent as it is in today's society. The way we live our lives is for current quality of life, current fulfillment, and to create a better life and Hamingja to pass down to our descendants. The only way the Norse would have possibly even thought about the afterlife semi-regularly is if they were a warrior, praising Valholl as they fought or celebrated, but even they weren't necessarily concerned. The warriors knew, one way or another they were destined for a Warrior’s Hall if they fell in battle, whether in Valholl or Folkvangr. We also must remember that warriors or “Vikings” were few and far between, as well as the fact that they were part time warriors. Most were farmers, fishermen, blacksmiths, etc when not raiding or voyaging. So, exactly how many places can one’s Hugr go when we pass on? Well, according to the Eddas and Sagas the places of the Norse afterlife are Helheimr, Nastrond (Area in Helheimr), Valholl, Sessrumnir, Ran’s Hall, Helgafjell (Eyrbyggjasaga, Laxdale Saga), and even personal burial mounds.

We will look at Helheim first, also called Hel, as this is where most of us will end up. Hel is a name given to the location, as well as the Goddess ruling over it although some use the term Helheim as a distinction between the two.. Helheim is attested in the Prose and Poetic Edda. Snorri Sturluson does not paint a very beautiful picture of Helheim, as he says:

“Her Hall is called Éljúðnir (dank), her plate is called Hungr (hunger), her knife is Sulltr (famine), her serving man is Gangláti (the slow one) her serving maid is Ganglöt (also meaning “the slow one”), her home’s threshold is called Fallanda forað (“stumbling block”), her bed is Kör (illness), and her bed curtains are called Blinkjanda böl (pale misfortune).”.

Now, there is always debate on how much Christian influence was placed into the Prose Edda by Snorri. It is quite possible that the Christian Hell influenced Snorri’s writing here, however, we cannot prove this. What we can prove is what is written in other sources about the place, and the goddess herself. In Heimskringla-Ynglingatal it refers to Hel as "howes'-warder" (guardian of the graves). In the Saga of Harald Sigurdsson the phrase "given to Hel '' is used, simply referring to death in a neutral tone, not negative. We shall also think about this, Baldr’s death. We are told that the whole Hall was prepared lavishly for the arrival of an Aesir god. If all that Snorri said were true, how did Hel prepare her Hall in such a way for Baldr? Another bit to ponder about Baldr, he was the most beloved of gods, if Helheim is indeed a horrible place that those who die of sickness and old age go, why did Baldr end up there? He was thrust with a spear, not only did he not die of sickness or old age, but the most beloved god would surely not end up in a horrible afterlife. One last bit about Baldr’s death gives us a glimpse of Hel’s character. She agrees to let Baldr return to Asgard, on the condition that all things weep for his death. Being that she knew of the Aesir’s capabilities she surely knew they would be able to do such things, and would actually release Baldr. Now, to keep this from being a one sided analysis, Hel is in fact the daughter of Loki, who is the one responsible for Baldr’s death to begin with. Is it possible there is more to the story between a father and daughter? Yes, and I leave that conclusion up to the reader. According to the Sagas, and partially the Eddas, Helheim is not seen as a horrible place, but a place that the dead must go if not killed in battle.

Náströnd by Lorenz Frølich

Nastrond is another place one can end up in the afterlife according to both the Poetic and Prose Edda. Nastrond is located in Helheim, and is called the “Corpse Shore”. According to the Eddas it is a place reserved for oathbreakers, those who committed adultery, and murder. This is where Nidhoggr resides, and chews on the corpses of those who go there. Voluspa of the Poetic Edda says this:

“A hall she saw standing

remote from the sun

on Dead Body Shore.

Its door looks north.

There fell drops of venom

in through the roof vent.

That hall is woven

of serpents’ spines.

She saw there wading

onerous streams

men perjured

and wolfish murderers

and the one who seduces

another’s close-trusted wife.

There Malice Striker sucked

corpses of the dead,

the wolf tore men.

Do you still seek to know? And what?”

-Voluspa 38-39

This could also be a Christian influenced idea, due to the fact that the Norse people didn’t seem to acknowledge an eternal punishment such as this. The way the Norse way of life is understood as of now, is they didnt believe in eternal torture or punishment in the afterlife. They believed if those who did wrong needed to be punished that it would be done during their life on Midgard. Now, for the sake of the lore, let's say this indeed a place in Helheim that can be an afterlife destination, it is strictly reserved for severe offenders, so most of us don’t have to worry about this one.

Valhalla, Illustrated By Emil Doepler (c. 1855-1922)

Valholl and Folkvangr (Sessrumnir) are two places in the afterlife for those who have died in battle. Valholl is reserved very strictly for warriors, as Odinn brings them there to fight alongside him during Ragnarok. Odin says in Grimnismal (Poetic Edda) that:

“Valholl is shining and golden, it rises peacefully as seen from afar. From Valhalla, every day Odin chooses from those killed in combat. Valholl has spear-shafts for rafters, a roof thatched with shields, coats of mail are strewn over its benches, a wolf hangs in front of its west doors, and an eagle hovers above it.

It is said in the Prose Edda poem Gylfaginning that every morning the Einherjar (Odinn’s Army) ride out to the courtyard and perform one on one combat for sport, then before meal time they ride back to the hall and drink. It states that Saehremnir is the food source for the Einherjar, which is a boar cooked and consumed every night, and is whole again by the next meal. They get their drinks served to them by Valkyries, and the mead comes from Heidrun, a goat that chews on the leaves of Laeradr. The goat produces so much mead that it fills a massive vat, large enough to quench every Einherjar’s thirst every day. This is also the poem we learn Odinn doesn't eat food, but only consumes wine and gives his food to his wolves Geri and Freki. Now, a lot of people assume Valholl is the equivalent of the Christian “Heaven”. This could not be further from the truth. The majority of the world's population are not warriors, in fact throughout most of history only a minority of people were warriors. This alone makes most people ineligible for Valholl. This is not even considering that for most people, fighting other warriors every single day until Ragnarok would not be their ideal afterlife. It is not mentioned in lore, however most people assume that these warriors fight until death and then are brought back to life every day. Most people would not enjoy dying every day. Not only are a very small minority of people warriors, of that minority half dont even go to Valholl, half go to Freyja in Folkvangr.

According to the Prose Edda, Freyja’s Hall is called Sessrumnir and is located in Folkvangr. This is where half of all slain in battle go for their afterlife. Not much is said about this Hall compared to Valholl, except that Folkvangr translates to “Field of the Host” “People Field” or “Army Field”. Britt-Mari Näsström emphasizes that Gylfaginning says "whenever she rides into battle she takes half of the slain" and interprets Fólkvangr as "the field of the Warriors." Näsström comments that:

“Freyja receives the slain heroes of the battlefield quite respectfully as Óðinn does. Her house is called Sessrumnir, 'filled with many seats', and it probably fills the same function as Valhöll, 'the hall of the slain', where the warriors eat and drink beer after the fighting. Still, we must ask why there are two heroic paradises in the Old Norse View of the afterlife. It might possibly be a consequence of different forms of initiation of warriors, where one part seemed to have belonged to Óðinn and the other to Freyja. These examples indicate that Freyja was a war-goddess, and she even appears as a valkyrie, literally the one who chooses the slain.”

Now, it was not only believed that warriors went to Folkvangr, unlike Valholl. In Egil’s Saga Thorgerd says this:

“I have had no evening meal, nor will I do so until I join Freyja. I know no better course of action than my father's. I do not want to live after my father and brother are dead.”

This indicates that those dedicated to Freyja believed they would end up with her in her hall. Could this also hint that the same belief was being carried amongst the Norse, with the other Norse Gods? We will address that a little later.

Those who died at sea were thought to rest in Ran’s Hall. There are not many positive mentions of Ran in the Eddas and Sagas, as most of them are blaming Ran for men drowning at sea, as if it was believed that Ran purposefully drowned the men to take to her Hall. There are a few stanzas where it specifically mentions men being in Ran’s Hall and it comes from Friðþjófs saga hins frœkna. They read:

"On bolster I sat

In Baldur's Mead erst,

And all songs that I could

To the king's daughter sang;

Now on Ran's bed belike

Must I soon be a-lying,

And another shall be

By Ingibiorg's side."

"The red ring here I hew me

Once owned of Halfdan's father,

The wealthy lord of erewhile,

Or the sea waves undo us,

So on the guests shall gold be,

If we have need of guesting;

Meet so for mighty men-folk

Amid Ran's hall to hold them."

As we can see, Ran’s Hall was, and still is thought of as strictly reserved for those who die at sea.

Helgafell Mountain, Iceland

One other afterlife destination that is very widely attested, is that of a family burial mound. One such place is actually very popularly known. So known in fact, songs are written about it. Helgafjell, known as a "Holy mountain", is mentioned in a few sagas. The saga says it was a sacred place that no man could look to without washing their face first. Seeking advice from ancestors was a normal custom at Helgafjell. This mountain where the dead reside, was also a place where those who have special abilities could look on the mountain and see the dead that inhabited it. Apparently it is a place for resting, a warm hearth, and good food and drink. There is debate on whether the idea of Helgafjell is limited to simply the mountain in Iceland which can be seen as a burial mound, or an actual Hall where anyone can go to rest with their ancestors. In Eyrbyggja Saga, Þórólfr Mostrarskegg is said to have believed that the mountain close to his home in Iceland held great importance “and he believed that thither he would go when he died, and all his kindred in the Ness”. After his death his son Þorsteinn Þorskabítr inherited the property, and not long afterwards he went out on a fishing expedition and he and all his crew were drowned. Before the news of the calamity could reach home, says the saga, his shepherd was out on the mountains and chanced to look over in the direction of Helgafell. He was facing the northern side of it, and as he looked it seemed to him that the mountain stood open and sounds of merriment and feasting could be heard coining from within. He caught something of what was being said, and realized that those inside were welcoming Þorsteinn and his crew, and that Þorsteinn was being invited to sit in the high-seat opposite to his father. (Road to Hel). This same concept for Helgafjell, is echoed through sagas regarding family burial mounds. Many believed that their resting place would be with their family on the inherited property. This is also where the Draugr comes from in Norse Lore. If one resides in their mound, and becomes jealous of what is happening with their past possessions, or if someone is buried in the mound and doesn't feel they were buried with enough of their possessions they can become a Draugr. The concept of the Draugr further emphasizes the belief of the burial mound being a resting place for the Hugr, for the Hamr (Physical body) can't move and act without the Hugr.

Now, we will revisit this:

“I have had no evening meal, nor will I do so until I join Freyja. I know no better course of action than my father's. I do not want to live after my father and brother are dead.”

It is clear that this person believed because she was devoted to Freyja, that she would go to Freyja’s Hall in death, though not killed in battle. Can this thought process possibly have echoed through all of Norse culture? Well, it does today. In Scandinavia, with Asatru or Norse Pagan organizations such as Nordiska Asa-Samfundet in Sweden, and even in the Americas with the Northern American Nordic Society, it is believed that one can end up in any of the gods’ halls upon death. While it is still widely believed most of us will end up with Hel, or in the burial mound, it is believed that in some cases those devout to specific deities, or those who have heavily venerated the attributes of that god, can be pulled into those halls. For example, a fisherman that doesn't die at sea could be sent to Njord’s Hall, or a farmer who dies may end up with Thor in his. Keep in mind the only two Halls that seem specifically reserved for people are Valholl, and Ran’s Hall. Though, you must also think of those who were sacrificed for Odinn, where did they go? Did they end up with Odinn in Valholl? These are all things to ponder, as we are meant to question things and learn.

Throughout this writing the term “afterlife” was used as it is the most recognizable term for the topic. However, it is important to point out that death was not necessarily seen as the end, but a continuation of life. A more suitable term to use in that context that better describes the Norse view would be “Future Life”. With the term future life we can slowly change our own way of thinking about death, and change it from being the end, to being a transition or continuation of life. It is important to try and break the chains that have been wrapped around our way of thinking by either the teachings of monotheistic faiths or by modern pagan movements that deny traditional thinking, so we can completely embrace and understand how these Eddas, Sagas, and Norse concepts were truly viewed.

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