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Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Heathenry and the Afterlife

The afterlife is a very complicated thing in Heathenry, and it is something that is too often simplified in discussions and books to reflect a more classical or monotheistic model. People seem to have an endless desire to know where we go after we die and how we can get there that makes this a perennial question. The answer though is not at all simple because the Heathen understanding of the soul and of the afterlife was not simple.

     Many people focus on going to Valhalla, as if Odin's hall was the Heathen equivalent of the Greek Elysian Fields, the reward, the good place that everyone should seek to get to, but that is not so. First of all Odin's hall is described in the Prose Edda as a place of slain warriors, who, for fun, battle each other all day and drink and feast all night (Young, 1964). The mead, literally, flows freely there and the party - and fighting - never ends but its not a peacefully relaxing place. It is the gathering place of the Einherjar, the warriors who will fight for the Gods during Ragnarok. I tend to imagine it something along the lines of a really rowdy biker bar. It is also only one of many halls and, beyond that, the God's halls themselves are only one possible afterlife destination.
    Some people insist that the only way to get to Valhalla is to die in battle, and it is true that the Prose Edda says that the battle dead go there and that Odin sends the Valkyries out to choose those worthy of Valhalla (Young, 1964). However, Freya was said to have her choice of half the battle dead for her hall, Folkvangr as well, meaning that a battle death did not guarantee entrance to Valhalla. And you don't have to die in battle to go to Valhalla as in some cases those who died by other means went there. In Egil's Saga Egil says that both his sons have gone to Odin's hall, despite the fact that one drown and one died of a fever; Egil himself, although dedicated to Odin does not expect to go to Valhalla, but rather says he sees Hel waiting for him (Egil's Saga, 1997). Our Troth volume 1 also notes that Sigurdr and Baldr, both killed by weapons, go to Helheim, while Sinfjotli goes to Valhala after dying of poison (Our Troth, 2006).
     Besides the halls of Odin and Freya several other Gods are specifically mentioned in the lore. Unmarried maidens might go to Gefjon's hall, as it is said that she is attended by those "who die maidens" (Our Troth, 2006). In the Lay of Harbard Odin accuses Thor of taking the dead common men into his hall, in contrast to Odin's own preference for warriors, poets, and nobles (Bellows, 2007). Those who drown at sea are taken by Ran, caught up in her nets, and brought to her hall (Grimm, 1966). This gives us a wider picture of where a soul can go after death, but the Gods halls alone are only a small portion of the options available.
     The second most well known destination of the dead is Helheim. The Prose Edda tells us that those who die of age or illness generally go to Hel's hall, while liars, murderers, and oathbreakers go to Nastrond, both within Helheim (Young, 1964). Odin sent Hel to Niflheim to care for all the dead who came to her, and those who enter her realm belong to her. In the Edda Helheim is described as gloomy and terrible, yet elsewhere in other stories, such as Baldr's Dream, it is described as a rich feasting hall, with ale ready to welcome guests (Bellows, 2007; Young, 1964). I tend to believe the warm, welcoming version of Hel's hall is far more likely and I see Helheim as the realm of the ancestors.
     Some dead become mound dwellers; their souls going into the land. In Eyrbyggja Saga after Thorolfr's son drowns it is believed he goes into a hill on his father's land where he is welcomed with feasting (eyrbyggja Saga, 1972). In Gisli Saga a man who is called a friend of Freyr dies and is buried in a mound and it is said that no frost will form on the hill because Freyr does not want frost to come between them (Our Troth, 2006). In the Voluspa Odin goes to get the prophecy from an ancient seer in a mound and, indeed, the entire process of utisetta is based on the idea of contacting spirits within grave mounds. Additionally it has been suggested that some alfar are the male dead of a family as the disir are the female dead (Our Troth, 2006). Speaking of disir, it is entirely possible for a woman, after death, to become a disir, or idis, that is a specific type of spirit that watches over her family line (Our Troth, 2006).
    Reincarnation is also an old Heathen belief. Specifically it is believed that a soul might be reborn within a family line and that naming a child after a deceased ancestor can mean the rebirth of that ancestor in the child (Ellis Davidson, 1968). In some cases a child might be born with similar marks or the appearance of a deceased family member which could indicate a soul relationship (Our Troth, 2006). I have also heard it said, although I can't place the reference at the moment, that it was considered bad luck to name a child after a living relative for this reason.
     It is clear that there are a wide array of possible places for a soul to go after death. As individuals we do not seem to have much real control over where we might go when we die, so I honestly don't see the point in worrying much about it. Live a good honorable life while you are here and worry about the afterlife when you get there.

Egils Saga (1997) Penguin Classics
Young, J, (1964) Prose Edda
Bellows, H., (2007) Poetic Edda
Eyrbyggja Saga (1972). Penguin Classics
Our Troth, vol 1 (2006) Book Surge
Ellis Davidson, H., (1968) The Road to Hel

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