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Conceptions of the Afterlife

Great Valley Kindred often finds itself in opposition to sentiments in mainstream Asatru/Heathenry.  One of these areas where we find ourselves nonplussed is the topic of a Heathen afterlife.  The very obsession with death and afterlife is misplaced, as we will discuss.  But more immediately, the common conceptions of afterlife that grip modern Heathenry (as evidenced by various online discussion fora) seem to proceed from superficial understandings of Lore and misinformation.

Given the prominence of the topic, as evinced by chatter on various internet fora, we thought we would take this occasion to articulate our own thew, or tribal worldview.  This serves as notice to the wider Heathen and pagan community on where we stand. 

This article is not an attempt to provide a detailed study of Heathen afterlife beliefs and eschatology: entire books and papers have been written on the subject.  Rather, it seeks to survey the general pulse of modern Heathen opinion, contrast it to known historical sources, and then furnish GVK’s response to it.

If you are familiar with Heathen eschatology, then you may safely skip to the very last section of this article. If you are not, then everything before the concluding section will serve as a “scholarly” crash course on the subject.

Perhaps we can think of five very broad scenarios for the afterlife:

  • The Halls of the Gods
  • The Goddesses of Death
  • The Only Afterlife is Fame
  • Passing Luck Down the Family Line
  • The Cult of Ancestors / the Grave Mound

We will discuss each of these in turn.

 

Prologue: Buried or Burned

In archeology, funerary remains manifest in two basic forms: inhumation (burial) and cremation. It is generally presumed by archaeologists and students of religion that inhumation implies a return to the earth and a perceived underworld of the dead, while cremation suggests a liberation of the soul and journey to another realm (Pollington, The Elder Gods: The Otherword of Early England 446).

In the Bronze Age, Germanic graves suggest inhumation was the earliest practice. In time, however, cremation becomes virulently widespread, though not quite completely eclipsing the earlier inhumation practice (Davidson, The Road to Hel: Study of the Conception of the Dead in Old Norse Literature 14). In the Iron Age, under Roman influence, the pendulum swings back to inhumation, but cremation is still practiced (Davidson, The Road to Hel: Study of the Conception of the Dead in Old Norse Literature 15).

But what does it all mean?  Norse literature tells us that cremation is linked with the cult of Odin. (Davidson, The Road to Hel: Study of the Conception of the Dead in Old Norse Literature 69). Cremation seems to have started in Germany and travelled northward through Scandinavia (Davidson, The Road to Hel: Study of the Conception of the Dead in Old Norse Literature 14).  This is interesting, because the cult of the All-Father seems to have started in Germany along the Rhine and worked its way northward to Scandinavia.   

Both inhumation and cremation are present in eastern and southern England in the 5th and 6th centuries.  These often occur within the same cemetery. The rites of each could vary widely, and are open to interpretation (Williams 72). 

  • Cremation: the corpse was washed and dressed, the latter perhaps displaying social significance. Items belonging to the deceased individual, or funerary gifts, were also placed on the pyre. The corpse itself was then placed on the pyre. Food and drink were offered, and a variety of animals seem to have been sacrificed, suggesting a feast in honor of the dead and/or supplication of spiritual powers.  After burning, some of the items on the pyre (and possibly bone fragments of the deceased?) were distributed among the living. The remaining ashes were placed in a cinerary urn and buried according to local custom.  Funerary urns were noted for rich, sometimes bizarre decorations, and there is speculation as to what this meant or how it related to the deceased (Williams 72-74).
  • Inhumation: recent studies suggest that burials are like lines of a poetry or stages of a play, meant to evoke a series of scenes, emotions, and meanings – some of which are manifest, and others concealed. The contents and arrangement of every grave therefore tells a sequence of meanings, and these vary widely of course (Williams 77-78). 

Buried or burned, both were transformations of an individual from life to death.

It is time to consider the role of the gods, and particularly Odin, in the afterlife.

 

I: The Halls of the Gods

A common belief among modern Heathenry is that, upon death, one will reside in the hall of one’s patron deity.

The halls of the gods are described at various places in Norse poetry.  The most critical passages are however contained in Grimnismal in the Poetic Edda.  Odin, under the guise of “Grimnir,” is captured and tortured by a king. Under torture he reveals himself as the god Odin, and he relays the topography of the divine world.  

 Further details are enumerated in the Prose Edda, which was penned (most likely) by the Icelandic chieftan Snorri Sturluson. In the first part of the Prose Edda, Gylfaginning, three beings who are usually understood as avatars of Odin relay the topography of the divine world to a sorcerer-king who visits them.

In the very beginning of Gylfaginning, the Odinic avatars state that “all righteous men” shall be with the All-Father, while wicked men go to Niflhel.  This seems suspiciously like a Christian interpolation, particularly since the passage makes a point to describe Odin in terms a Christian would understand of his own god– creator of the heavens and earth, creator of mankind, and supreme judge of mankind (Sturluson 12).   In any case, this simple dichotomy of “good people go to live with the supreme god in heaven” and “bad people are cast into an underworld darkness” is not borne out elsewhere in the Eddas. We can safely dismiss it.  

Odin has several halls.

  • The first is Valaskialf which is roofed with silver; this is the hall Odin uses for his own exclusive purposes (Larrington 52). We are told in the Prose Edda it houses his High Seat, Hlidskjalf, from which he can observe the happenings of the Nine Worlds (Sturluson 28).
  • Odin’s second hall is called Sokkvabekk; it must be near the water, as it catches the waves (Larrington 52). Odin shares this with the goddess Saga, who most likely is a version of the goddess Frigge (Larrington 269). 
  • Finally, the third hall is known as Gladsheim. The Poetic Edda elaborates and declares that Gladsheim is an area of grandeur; it contains thirteen thrones for the gods, from which they preside over the destinies of mankind (Sturluson 22).  Within Gladhseim (which seems to be more a heavenly realm than a hall per se) is located the complex known as Valhöll (Larrington 53).

Freyja resides in Folkvang. She shares half the battle slain with Odin, and we are told within her hall she arranges the seating of her hand-picked warriors (Larrington 53). The Prose Edda declares that Folkvang (Warrior’s Fields) is the name of the general area where she lives, and that the hall itself is called Sessrumnir (With Many Seats) (Sturluson 35).

Thor, Odin’s son, rules over Bilskinir.  Odin (as Grimnir) calls it the greatest of the roofed halls (Larrington 55).  If we understand Thor as the god of the common farmer and peasant – and by far the most popular god of the Viking Age – then we can understand why he would need the largest hall to entertain his followers.

Freyr is not mentioned in connection with a specific hall. He merely resides in Alfheim (Larrington 52)

Tyr has no mention of his own hall.

Halls listed for minor deities are as follows:

  • Skadi took over the hall of Thrymheim from her father, the giant Thiazi (Larrington 53).
  • Balder has (had, since he was slain?) the hall of Brediablik (Larrington 53).
  • To Heimdall is allotted the hall Himinbiorg; the hall is described as comfortable, and Heimdall likes to drink mead there (Larrington 53).
  • Forsetti presides over Glitner, a hall of gold and silver, from which he dispatches peace (Larrington 54).
  • Njord claims Noatan, a high timbered hall (Larrington 54).

With all that, is there much evidence in the lore of people joining the halls of their patron gods in the afterlife? The lore mentions the abodes of several of the gods; but aside from Odin and Freyja it does not explicitly state that the souls of deceased followers reside in those halls.   

 

Freyja, Odin and the Battle-Slain

We look now to Freyja and Odin, and their role in the afterlife.

 

Freyja

Freyja chooses half of the battle-slain; she shares the task with Odin.  Odin uses supernatural female entities known as Valkyries to help choose his half; the link between Freyja and the Valkyries (if one exists) is not clear. 

It has been suggested by some in modern Heathenry that Freyja chooses her half of the slain first (Lafayllve 28) ; some further suggest she gets the proverbial pick of the litter, leaving the “leftovers” for Odin.  Neither of these notions are explicitly stated in lore, and will not be entertained here. 

Lore does not state what Freyja does with her half.  Unverified Personal Gnosis (UPG) from some of Freyja’s followers suggests that there is a division of labor between her and Odin at Ragnarok; his half are the shock troops that fight at the front lines, while her half acts as the defensive rear guard (Lafayllve 71).  An interesting concept, but it serves to remind the reader that the “U” in UPG stands for “unverified.”

All we know for certain is that according to Norse poetry, Freyja chooses half the battle slain for some unknown purpose. 

Odin

Much more is known about Odin’s half of the slain.

Valhöll, as been noted before, is located with the larger area of Gladsheim.

It is said by Grimnir to have 540 doors (Larrington 55); however, if the poet meant “long hundreds” where a hundred actually meant 120, then there are actually 600 doors or more (Sturluson 143). Each door can field 800 warriors (Larrington 55).

People know Valhöll when they see it: it is visually distinctive. It uses spear-shafts for rafters, shields for thatch, and mail-coats are strewn on benches. A wolf hangs on the western door, and an eagle is placed above it (Larrington 55). 

The slain summoned to Valhöll are called the Einherjer. Every day they practice battle with each other (Sturluson 49-50).  They are refreshed by continual meat and mead (Sturluson 47, 48). The Einherjer are described as “kings, jarls and men of rank” who are entitled to mead because water would be beneath their station (Sturluson 48).  The Einherjer fight the forces of chaos at Ragnarok.  Odin perishes in the battle, and presumably his shock troops do so as well (Sturluson 73), (Larrington 11).

 

Epilogue to Odin, Freyja and the Battle Slain

We do not know exactly how big Sessrumnir in Folkvang is, and how many warriors it can hold.   We do not know exactly to what purpose they are assigned. We do not know the criteria by which Freyja chooses them: are they aristocratic like Odin’s? We know only two things: they fell in battle, and she picks them. 

If we take the number of doors in Valhöll multiplied by the number of warriors it can service, then we can say that (rounding to the nearest comprehensible figure) we get something like half a million Einherjer in Valhalla.  Two important things are mentioned: 1) they fell in battle 2) they are aristocratic, or otherwise “men of rank.” 

We are not done with Odin, though. He is a complicated fellow.   He is also intimately connected with death, and since our topic is death (or what follows afterward) we need to look a little more closely.

 

Odin, Death and Sacrifice

Even outside of Valhöll, Odin is a god connected with the dead.  It is theorized he presided over Männerbünder, ancient cultic bands of adolescent warriors who propitiated the dead (Kershaw 21).  During the Migration Era, human sacrifice was offered to a Germanic “Mercury” (sometimes “Mars”) who is usually interpreted as Odin (Davidson, Gods and Myths of Northern Europe 54-55).  In the late Norse literature he is associated with men who are ritually stabbed and/or hung (Davidson, Gods and Myths of Northern Europe 52).

He is also the guide of warriors.  In the Saga of the Volsungs, he guides several generations of warriors to fruition (Byock, The Saga of the Volsungs 8). He withdraws his favor from his scions, consigning them to death, and presumably to the Einherjer   In Hralfs Saga Kraka, he tests and guides a band of warriors; and when they spurn his hospitality, he withdraws his favor, which ultimately leads to most of their deaths (Byock, The Saga of King Hrolf Kraki 56, 68, 77).

In Heimskringla, a history of Norwegian kings penned by Snorri, the Aesir gods are reduced to powerful magician kings and queens.   Odin taught his followers the art of cremation (in contrast to the usual practice of inhumation). Every man would enter Vahöll with as much wealth as he had on his funeral pyre  (Sturlason 7).

There is mention in the lore, and corroborating commentary from other sources, that hurling oneself over a cliff was a path to Vahöll, and not necessarily one reserved for warriors (Davidson, The Road to Hel: Study of the Conception of the Dead in Old Norse Literature 79).   Finally, the infamous Ragnar Lothbrok was executed in a snake pit by his foes; his death speech makes it clear he thought he was Vahöll-bound (Davidson, The Road to Hel: Study of the Conception of the Dead in Old Norse Literature 80). 

There is thus a wider tradition concerning Odin that violent death in general can lead to Valhöll for his followers. Burning, hanging, stabbing, falling and execution – these are all spoken of.  It is also strongly felt that the path of the Odinic warrior ultimately leads to death, whether one solicits it not, for Odin needs Einherjer for Ragnarok.

 

Valhöll Reconsidered

We may accept a broader path to Valhöll, as noted above.  But the larger question we should ask ourselves: do we accept Valhöll

We return to the theory of the Männerbund, or the ancient cult of adolescent warriors who propitiated the dead, and over whose education Odin (Wodan) presided. Perhaps the Einherjer are nothing but a mythic embodiment of a time when adolescents roamed the edge of civilization, engaging in ecstatic rites and learning tribal warfare (Kershaw 14-15).

We have discussed in previous articles that in the Migration Age, warlords came to preside over extra-tribal warbands who gathered in a residential hall.  It is also entirely possible that Valhöll is a mythic rendering of the lord’s warrior retainers who met under his roof (Pollington, The Meadhall 269).

Finally, Valhöll may be an inflated reworking of a simpler concept known as the Everlasting Battle, where armies of the dead continually wage war. Something of this belief can be found in Hrolf’s Saga Kraka where an elf-sorceress continually reanimates corpses (Byock, The Saga of King Hrolf Kraki 76).

Can Valhöll be reduced to mere poetry of the late Viking Age?  Perhaps the most salient question is to what degree did earlier Germanic cultures internalize a Valhöll myth, and by extension, a Ragnarok myth? Our kindred is of course most concerned with the Anglo-Saxon tradition. The paucity of information in the Anglo-Saxon tradition makes it difficult to discern either way. 

The Northumbrian bishop Coife persuaded King Edwin and his court to convert to Christianity precisely because (in his view) Christianity contained clear answers on matters such as the afterlife, where the Heathen tradition held no enlightenment in such things.  Coife seems to have been a high-ranking Heathen priest before he converted to Christianity.  We must take Christian version of events with a grain of salt, but the passage suggests Anglo-Saxon Heathenry had no clear-cut view on the afterlife (Pollington, The Elder Gods: The Otherword of Early England 437).

But if there were no “official” Anglo-Saxon Heathen afterlife belief, could not some people in certain times and certain places nonetheless have believed in something like Valhöll? The Dream of Rood, a Christianized Anglo-Saxon poem, suggests a warlord enters heaven at the head of his warband.  Interesting, but not conclusive.

There is an iconic image on the Suttun Hoo purse lid of two beasts attacking a man. 

Also within Sutton Hoo, we have burial mounds that seem to imitate the dining hall of a warlord preparing for battle, which seems to evoke an echo of Valhöll (Pollington, The Elder Gods: The Otherword of Early England 444).  Still, none of this can be taken as concrete evidence of a Valhöll myth.

In conclusion, based on the (admittedly sparse) evidence, we cannot state that Anglo-Saxons believed in Valhöl, or the wider Ragnarok myth.

 

 II: The Goddesses of Death

In Norse literature there are three female figures connected with death.  This is something of an extension of the “Halls of the Gods” mentioned above.  

Gefjun is a goddess mentioned several times in the Poetic Edda and Prose Edda.  For our purposes, the most salient point is that she is described as a maiden, and women who die as virgins serve her (Larrington 42).  This one line from Snorri, who is notorious for having a checkered validity when it comes to Heathen belief, is not very convincing.  The Old English cognate to Gefjun is geofon or gyfen; these words appear in reference to the sea or watery depths, but there is no known Anglo-Saxon tradition of a goddess by that name (Pollington, The Elder Gods: The Otherword of Early England 240-241).

Ran is mentioned in the Eyrbygga Saga.  She is a goddess of the sea, and it is implied she rules over drowned men (Palsson 138).  It’s hard to trace bona fide cults to her, and she may simply be a poetic allusion, a personification of the sea (Davidson, The Road to Hel: Study of the Conception of the Dead in Old Norse Literature 83). Ran is not mentioned in the Anglo-Saxon tradition.

Finally, Snorri tells us that Hel was one of the monstrous children of Loki and an ogress.  Odin threw her into Niflheim.  Her hall is called Eljudnir (Snowstorm-Sprayed). There she receives those who died of old age and sickness (Sturluson 39). This Hel seems a bit like the Greek Hades or even the Jewish Sheol.  It seems rather like a poetic contrast to Valhöll; Valhöll is for the (usually) high born who (usually) die in battle, Hel is for the non-warrior and common person.   The realm of Hel as Snorri tells it seems to be largely his own poetic invention (Davidson, The Road to Hel: Study of the Conception of the Dead in Old Norse Literature 93).   In the Anglo-Saxon tradition, hel simply refers to the grave, or rather, the concealed earth – suggesting barrow-corpses (Pollington, The Elder Gods: The Otherword of Early England 445).

On the whole, then, these three goddesses seem to be more poetic inventions or poetic allusions than concrete deities. 

 

III: The Only Afterlife Is Fame

Every age has people that are dubious, sometimes even cynical, about notions of the supernatural; rare though it is, there are such “godless men” mentioned in the lore (Turville-Petre 263-264).   Despite encountering Odin, King Hrolf and his champions eschew worship of the gods and believe only in their own “might and main” (Byock, The Saga of King Hrolf Kraki 71).  (It should be noted that, within the context of the particular story, their refusal to accept Odin’s patronage plays a factor in their subsequent defeat and death).

In Anglo-Saxon literature, there are hints that, despite paying lip service to Heathen deities or a Christian god, some people felt themselves in a world of impersonal forces and happenstance. The individual was left to rise and fall by his own merits, and warriors in particular could trust nothing but their own strength (Griffiths 72, 75).

Within the context of the afterlife, perhaps the cynicism or despair of such people is hiding in plain sight in one of Heathenry’s most celebrated works.  Hávamál, or Sayings of the High One, is a so-called wisdom document.  Originally It was actually five different works – and presumably had five different authors – which were later redacted into a single document, united loosely by the figure of Odin, who serves as patron of poets and wanderers (Larrington 14), (Hollander 14).   

Of these five sections, Odin and the runes cover the last two.   The first three sections barely mention any god or religion at all.   The verses seem to be penned by wanderers whose station in life is not secure. For a so-called wisdom document, the advice given by the verses is earthy, even cynical (Turville-Petre 267).  It is theorized Hávamál might be written by cultists of Odin who were displaced from their ancestral homes when King Harold Finehair of Norway assumed power, stripping certain nobles of their ancestral (odal) lands.  These cultists were then forced to travel and wander, eking out a harsh life (Turville-Petre 263-264).

If Hávamál was written by people of dubious means and trying circumstances, it places the advice given within its verses in a truly particular context, which is not often known or discussed within wider Heathenry.

Among other things, some of its more famous strophes celebrate lasting fame:

 

Cattle die, kinsmen die

The self must also die;

But glory never dies,

For the man who is able to achieve it (Larrington 24).

 

Cattle die, kinsmen die

The self must also die;

I know one thing which never dies:

The reputation of each dead man (Larrington 24).

 

Modern Heathens usually take this as an admonishment to live an ethical life and be justly remembered after death.  But why is this remembrance so important in the first place? 

Earlier in the Hávamál we are consoled that “it is better to be alive than dead” (Larrington 23).  We are also told the best thing about a son is that he will raise a memorial stone over the corpse over his father – because no one else is inclined to do such a thing (Larrington 72).  All of this seems rather gloomy and cynical. 

We again point out Hávamál is bereft of any gods or religious sentiment, save for Odin and the runes in the later sections.   It seems to suggest the poets who composed the first sections of Hávamál were not expecting an afterlife, and reputation was important precisely because that was the only means of survival after death.  

 

IV: Passing Down Luck Within the Family line

“Passing down Luck within the family line” is a bit of an unwieldy phrase.  But other stabs at pithily naming this concept – such as “reincarnation” or “rebirth” – are a bit of a misnomer.  There is no single term in modern English that precisely describes the idea under discussion. 

Heathen soul-lore is a complicated subject, beyond the confines of this article.   Let us simply suggest the soul was multivalent not singular: it had different parts that performed different functions. Some of these parts were semi-independent of the others, capable of breaking off and performing tasks.   This seems a critical concept to certain acts of Heathen magic, for instance.

For our purposes, we will discuss the hamingja.  The hamingja is sometimes conceptualized as a female guardian spirit which can be seen in dreams. It embodies the concept of “luck” or the inherent ability (or inability) deriving from one’s character and personality to do well (Davidson, The Road to Hel: Study of the Conception of the Dead in Old Norse Literature 137, 139).  This hamingja can pass down through the family line; in particular someone can inherent the luck of an ancestor for whom he was named (Davidson, The Road to Hel: Study of the Conception of the Dead in Old Norse Literature 137-138). 

Whether the hamingja is actually a soul-part being passed down, or is simply a female guardian spirit attaching itself to different individuals within a family line, is not clear. In the sum of things, the difference is not extraordinarily important. What matters is that some part of the individual’s personality can be said to survive death and transferred to one’s descendants. 

 

V: The Cult of Ancestors / Grave Mound

In pre-Christian native cultures, worship of the dead or ancestors is widespread, perhaps almost universal.   As a religious concept, this presupposes two things:

  • That there is a “dead” in some kind of collective, supernatural sense
  • That such beings can be propitiated ritualistically to entreat the various blessings and protections one expects of supernatural entities.

We noted earlier that of the two funeral customs – inhumation and cremation – inhumation is presumed to imply a return to the earth, an underworld afterlife.  Heathen archaeology is replete with howes, which reach their zenith in the Viking Age, and other examples of graves abound as well. In certain areas, increasingly, the mounds are buried with implements of daily life and sometimes weapons, suggesting the corpse was to use these in an afterlife. (Davidson, The Road to Hel: Study of the Conception of the Dead in Old Norse Literature 16).  Some massive mounds in Scandinavia and Anglo-England contain ship burials (Davidson, The Road to Hel: Study of the Conception of the Dead in Old Norse Literature 23, 30).

The Icelandic Sagas are filled with passages of mounds and graves.  Interestingly, it gives rise to the concept of a druagr, a zombie-like corpse who zealously guards the wealth of its mound and occasionally exits to cause trouble to the living.  This belief seems widespread enough that people actually burned corpses to prevent the rise of a druagr (Davidson, The Road to Hel: Study of the Conception of the Dead in Old Norse Literature 43), and it may be that some of the cremation in the archaeological record is linked with this practice, not the cult of Othin.

In any case, it seems clear from both archaeology and the literary record that the dead exist within their graves, that they have power to effect the living (for better or for worse) and that attention and goods paid to them elicit their involvement (Davidson, The Road to Hel: Study of the Conception of the Dead in Old Norse Literature 67).

While modern Heathenry is largely deity centric, it is theorized that in historical Heathenry, ancestors played a larger role in the lives of the average individual – or, should we say, the average family.  The cult of a deity is typically reinforced by a locus of centralized political and social power (Griffiths 15), something beyond the ken of the average family.  Further, one’s ancestors were, and are, presumably closer to one’s daily needs than deities who have larger concerns (Griffiths 27). The final evidence is that, while Christianity quickly eclipsed the cult of the major gods, the cult of the lesser spirits like the ancestors continued long afterwards (Sanmark 159).

Unlike in Scandinavia, howes are rare in Anglo-Saxon England until about the 7th century CE (Griffiths 29).  The archaeological remains in Old England are typically reserved for social elites.  However, small scale cemeteries are known where grains were offered, and it seems likely the Old English honored ancestors within their homes at the hearth (Griffiths 30-31). From the grave sites we have in Old England, archaeology confirms the frequent remains of animal sacrifice (Pollington, The Elder Gods: The Otherword of Early England 447). Ancestors were also associated with the landscape (Sanmark 172).

In late Scandinavian religion, ancestor worship could be construed in two forms. There were the disir, or female protective spirits, who watched over an individual and often appeared in dreams (Davidson, The Road to Hel: Study of the Conception of the Dead in Old Norse Literature 142). These beings seemed to have been female ancestresses of the clan, and may be seen as a continuation of the Germano-Celtic cult of the matronae, or Mothers (Pollington, The Elder Gods: The Otherword of Early England 324).  The Anglo-Saxons may have honored the disir/matronae under the guise of Mother’s Night, which occurred on the eve of modern Christmas (Pollington, The Elder Gods: The Otherword of Early England 328).

The other form was the cult of the alfr, usually masculine entities that are liked with the dead dwelling within the mounds (Davidson, The Road to Hel: Study of the Conception of the Dead in Old Norse Literature 117-118, 120). The Anglo-Saxon equivalent are the ielfe or ylfe (Pollington, The Elder Gods: The Otherword of Early England 317-318).  Elves were chthonic beings connected with fertility and death, and were capable of harming humans with “elf-shot” (Pollington, The Elder Gods: The Otherword of Early England 319-321)However, they could also provide magic, prophecy and poetic inspiration: Germanic religion has a fine tradition of “mound-sitting” where people sat or slept on mounds to commune with their inhabitants (Griffiths 39).

To recap, the ancestor cult existed in Anglo-Saxon England to honor the dead, or to supplicate them for esoteric wisdom (Sanmark 167).  A third function was to placate them:  neglect could turn ancestors into potentially malevolent forces (Sanmark 168).  Some corpses were decapitated, presumably to prevent them from returning as druagr (Sanmark 174).

It would seem that, if one ignores the Eddas, the most prevalent afterlife option in literature and archaeology was that of the cult of the dead.

 

Afterlife Options Reconsidered: Modern Heathenry and GVK

With the historical survey of Heathen afterlife beliefs serving as prologue, let us take another look at common afterlife beliefs in Modern Heathenry.

Judging by internet chatter, it seems by far the most common belief (or hope) among mainstream Asatru is a desire to enter the hall of one’s patron god when one dies.  As we noted, outside of Odin and Freyja there is no evidence for this.  We will not further entertain the notion, then.

But if the other gods have some devotees, the lion’s share of mainstream Heathens seems especially concerned about dying in battle and entering Odin’s Valhöll.  The lore certainly supports this.  But what does the lore say? In reference to Odin’s warriors, it says they were slain in battle, and they were aristocrats.

Outside of active duty military, law enforcement and security services, not many people die in battle these days.  Sadly, much of the online posturing about Valhöll is done by people whose closest approach to combat is a LARP session or a redneck bar fight.

Also, how one interprets “aristocracy” in the modern era is problematic; if Odin is still collecting Einherjer, he presumably takes distinguished officers and specialized troops, not buck privates.

One sees in modern Heatheny sophomoric attempts to reinterpret “battle” in terms of fighting physical or mental illnesses.  While such things certainly require physical and emotional strength, they are not on par with combat-related deaths. These mental gymnastics designed to widen the path to Valhöll are misplaced, and possibly a disservice to the memories of the battle-slain.

We also discussed human sacrifice and ritual murder as a path to Valhöll. Capital punishment has become blasé in today’s world (outside of China or the American South) and human sacrifice is universally forbidden.  Not many chances there to ascend to Valhöll, either.

There is an area of lore that suggests one can jump from a cliff, or immolate oneself on a funeral pyre, or hang oneself.  One doesn’t necessarily have to be an aristocratic warrior.  Even if this is a true path to Valhöll, one might be dubious as to what status such people would garner in a hall full of kings and nobles.

Finally we have noted that Valhöll may be nothing but a poetic reworking of memories of actual warrior cults from a distant past. There is precious little evidence of its belief existing prior to the late Viking Age, such as in the Anglo-Saxon era.

The trio of goddesses of death – Hel, Ran and Gefjun – are dismissed as inventions of Norse poetry which have nothing to do with us.

The agnostic line – that there is no afterlife beyond one’s reputation – is not shared by us, either. We do believe in living an honorable life to garner fame to pass onto one’s descendants, but for its own reasons, not as a substitute for religious faith.

The concept of passing down luck within the family line seems viable enough as part of a Heathen worldview.  It is not, unlike some of our prior options, a poetic invention.  However, as it is by definition a familial issue, the kindred as a whole has no stance on it.   Individual families are free to explore this concept as they see fit.

It is in the cult of the Ancestors which the kindred places its firmest faith.  This is the path most solidly supported by lore and archeology.   We believe in the Ancestors as a class of beings whom we honor for their deeds, and whom we propitiate for their blessings.  We believe that in death one joins this community of Ancestors in some sense, to in turn be honored by one’s descendants and the Heathen community at large.  Finally, some who are esoterically inclined may work with the dead closely for reasons of magic and inspiration, as was done in historical Heathen times.

 

This Life, Not the Next

But the most important thing to realize is that a preoccupation with the afterlife is itself un-Heathen.

 An obsession with an afterlife in general, and Valhöll in particular, is usually displayed by recent converts to Heathenry who have still not shed a Christian mindset.   They are looking for a Heathen Christ who will take them to a Heathen heaven. They come into Heathenry armed with only the most superficial knowledge of Heathen lore – everyone out there knows Viking warriors burned ships as funeral pyres to get to Vahöll, right? 

Some may start scholarly reading with the Eddas where there are certainly some juicy passages on Valhöll. This is fine: reading and study are good things.  The problem is when the reading stops with the Eddas, as it sometimes seems to with popular Asatru.   There is a wider body of lore out there, as well as scholarly commentaries that place the lore (and archaeology) in critical context. 

Heathenry is a world-affirming religion, not a world denying religion. Heathenry’s presumptions are entirely different from Christianity, or indeed most modern world religions.  It is this life, this world, that really matters.  To be obsessed with death and what follows after is not healthy or useful. 

In several years of constant activities with the kindred, I can think of only a few rare times any of us actually stopped to discuss the issue of the afterlife.  While we are resigned to joining our ancestors some day, we do not obsess over it.  Life is too full of both responsibilities and joys to devote much time to the subject.   

The obsession displayed in modern Asatru with death, dying violently and Valhöll is not shared by the kindred.  We focus on celebrating the seasonal tides, the joys of friendship, and the ties that bind gods and humans to each other within this earthly life.

 

 

Works Cited

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Davidson, HRE. Gods and Myths of Northern Europe. New York: Penguin, 1964. Print.

—. The Road to Hel: Study of the Conception of the Dead in Old Norse Literature. New York: Greenwood Press, 1968. Print.

Griffiths, Bill. Aspects of Anglo-Saxon Magic. Anglo-Saxon Books, 2006. Print.

Hollander, Lee M., trans. The Poetic Edda. second edition. Austin: University of Texas Press, 2011. Print.

Kershaw, Kris. The One-eyed God: Odin and the (Indo-)Germanic Mannerbunde. Vol. Monograph 36. Washington, DC. : Journal of Indo-European Studies , 2005. Print.

Lafayllve, Patricia M. Freyja, Lady, Vanadis: An Introduction to The Goddess. Denver: Outskirts Press, Inc., 2006.

Larrington, Carolyne, trans. The Poetic Edda. New York: Oxford Univeristy Press, 1996. Print.

Palsson, Hermann & Edwards, Paul, trans. Eyrbyggja Saga. New York: Penguin Books, 1989. Print.

Pollington, Stephen. The Elder Gods: The Otherword of Early England. Anglo-Saxon Books, 2011. Print.

—. The Meadhall. Anglo-Saxon Books, 2010. Print.

Sanmark, Alexandra. “Living On: Ancestors and the Soul.” Signals of Belief in Early England: Anglo-Saxon Paganism Revisted. Ed. Carver & Sanmark & Semple. Oxford: Oxbow Books, 2010. PDF.

Sturlason, Snorre. Heimskringla or Lives of the Norse Kings. Trans. A.H. Smith. New York: Dover Publications, Inc., 1990. Print.

Sturluson, Snorri. The Prose Edda. Trans. Jesse Byock. New York: Penguin Books, 2005. Print.

Turville-Petre, E.O.G. Myth and Religion of the North: The Religion of Ancient Scandinavia. Westport: Greenwood Press, 1975. PDF.

Williams, Howard. “At the Funeral.” Signals of Belief in Early England: Anglo-Saxon Paganism Revosted. Ed. Carver & Senmark & Semple. Oxford: Oxbow Books, 2010. PDF.

 

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