The Heathen community has always had a bit of a fixation on the concept of Valhalla. Thanks to the popularizing forces of Marvel, and to a certain extent Snorri Sturluson, there’s this all too common idea of Valhalla as this glorious ‘Heathen Heaven’. Meanwhile Helheim is painted as a bleak and unpleasant existence. This dualistic worldview is really a product of Christian cosmology, and fails to do justice to the beautiful complexity of our tradition.
The Heathen afterlife has a plethora of potential destinations, many of which are not quite as clearly defined as people think. One’s place in death often depended on any number of factors, and the qualifications were not always consistent. In this article I’ll be going into half a dozen of the most commonly attested resting places for the followers of the Aesir and the Vanir.
Valhöll: (The Hall of the Fallen)
Valhöll, often anglicized Valhalla, is the great hall where Odin’s choice of the slain reside until Ragnarök. It is described in the Grímnismál as a golden hall, thatched with shields, and raftered by spears, where mail coats lay draped over the benches. The older sources in the Lore say that the slain who stay there live a life of joyous feasting, making no mention of eternal combat. In fact, the only source that associates Valhöll with constant fighting is a single verse in Vafþrúðnismál. Before Snorri expounded upon that verse in his Prose Edda, Valhöll was a place of rest and celebration for Odin’s favored veterans. There they would feast upon the never ending flesh of the boar Saehrímnir and the mead of the goat Heiðrún until called upon to fight the great wolf Fenrir at Ragnarök. The unending war was, in fact, associated with a different realm…
Fólkvangr: (Field of the Host or Army Field.)
Fólkvangr is the realm of the goddess Freyja, who get’s to choose her half of the fallen warriors BEFORE Odin. While Fólkvangr is often portrayed as a meadow, somewhat akin to “The Summer Lands”, this is an image that likely came about when Snorri’s vision of Valhöll grew in popularity and supplanted earlier ideas about Freyja’s hall. In the Skaldic poem Ragnarsdrápa, Freyja, a goddess of war, is said to have presided over the never ending battle of Hjaðningavíg (Where the fallen soldiers are resurrected each day to resume the carnage). Thus we begin to form an image of Fólkvangr that is less like a peaceful meadow and more like the bloody battlefield that later sources would attribute to Valhöll.
According to the Poetic Edda (Lokasenna) Rán is a goddess of the sea, whom later sources attest is married to the giant Ægir. She is portrayed as a malevolent figure known to use her nets to capture unprepared sailors and drag them down to their deaths. It is said that those who die at sea rest in Rán’s hall. No description is ever given for this place, so we have no way of knowing what kind of afterlife these people have. However, if later sources are to be trusted, we do know that Ægir was looked upon favorably by the gods. His hall was known for it’s elaborate parties and hospitality. Unfortunately, no remaining sources ever explain if Rán’s hall and Ægir hall are one and the same, or two completely different places.
Burial Mounds and the Halls of the Dead
We’re all undoubtedly familiar with the somewhat iconic Viking funeral pyres, however the archaeological record would suggest that that method of burial was not entirely common. The cost of making even a simple boat was too much for your average farmer to afford. Most bodies were actually interred in the earth, with methods varying widely depending on the time and place, as well as the station of the individual. Throughout the ages the Scandinavian peoples maintained a persistent idea of the lingering presence of the dead. The dead were thought to inhabit their own halls beneath the earth in much the same way they had in life. It is here that we begin to see the birth of what would eventually become known as the draugar. Interestingly the implications of that presence changed repeatedly as those peoples spread across northern Europe.
In earlier ages we see these figures as honored ancestors. The mounds and cairns of the dead were kept close, so that the fallen could keep watch over their descendants. Thus the dead were almost the guardians of the living. However, by the time commonly referred to as the “Viking Age” these ‘restless dead’ were often portrayed as the remains of cruel or greedy men; jealously guarding their halls against the living. In several Sagas we see protagonists bravely entering the halls of the fallen, whether to claim the treasures therein or to eliminate the threat of the druagar themselves. (Incidentally, it is these stories that would later inspire Tolkein’s Barrow-Wights)
Helgafell: (The Mountains of the Dead)
If you really go digging through the internet you’ll occasionally find mentions of a Heathen afterlife called “Helgafell”, where honorable dead can go to feast and celebrate even if they did not die in battle. This is a bit of a misnomer. Helgafell is a specific mountain in Iceland ; beneath which, according to the Eyrbyggja Saga, the kith and kin of Þórólfr Mostrarskegg are said to dwell. In that saga, Þórólfr (Thorulfr) claimed to have heard the celebrations of those passed echoing from within the mountain itself as they welcomed another member of his clan into their ranks.
Now there are numerous other tales from the Landnámabók which detail the dead of various specific families were said to reside in different mountains or hills that they held to be sacred. Thus we see that it is not specifically Helgafell that is a realm for the dead, it is an overarching idea of ‘The Mountains’ in general. This is common throughout the ancient world. Mountains are a liminal space where the earth touches the sky, thus they hold a special kind of power over the minds of men. They are sacred spaces, because they are somewhere between the worlds, as opposed to being rooted in one or the other.
Helheimr: (The Home of Death, The Hall of Hel)
Helheimr is perhaps the least understood realm of death. In modern times it is often portrayed as a dreary place for those who die of old age or disease. Yet again though, that interpretation of Hel is supported ONLY by Snorri Sturluson. A definition that he himself contradicts in his version of the death of Baldr, who ends up in Helheimr despite being violently murdered. Snorri spun Helheimr as an independent realm containing a place within it for the wicked, but this idea isn’t supported by any outside sources.
In older descriptions, the word Hel simply means ‘death’ or ‘to die’. As opposed to being a translocative realm, removed from the mortal world, Helheimr is portrayed as a physical place that the living may enter at their own peril. Descriptions of this underworld are few, but those tales that have survived paint a picture of a diverse and varied landscape, usually hidden beneath the earth. The Prose Edda would divide the destinations of the dead into separate worlds, but before the 1300’s their locations were far more vague. Thus Helheimr can be interpreted as a far more all encompassing underworld, while many of the other places listed above could be seen as specific locations found within the broader world of Helheimr.
Now, this article is going to make it sound like I have a major beef with Snorri’s work. While I do take issue with some aspects of the Prose Edda, please note that I’m not saying anyone should just toss out the whole book. Much of what is found in the Prose Edda can be traced to earlier sources or confirmed by archaeological evidence. The parts I call out here are those ideas which seem to be entirely unique to Snorri’s work, AND seem to contradict other sources. The Prose Edda is largely responsible for the common ideas of what the Heathen afterlife looks like, but Snorri’s interpretations fail to represent the magnificent complexity of the ancient Scandinavian views of death and the underworld.
Valhalla is not ‘Heathen Heaven’. Hel is not where the weak and the wicked are doomed to go. The afterlife of those who follow the Aesir and the Vanir is as beautiful and diverse as the members of our community are in life. Most of all, let us remember that these many pathways of the dead were made by a community that focuses its energy and attention on life. Regardless of where each person’s final journey may take them, the common factor throughout the lore was an emphasis on how that person LIVED.