Inner-Yard and Outer-Yard
Developing a Practice
Illustration of the goddess Hel.

Hel, Norse goddess of death

The Norse concepts of death and the afterlife are perhaps some of the more well-known aspects of Heathenry, and perhaps some of the most misunderstood.

Many people are familiar with Odin’s hall, Valhalla, where chosen warriors who die in battle go to feast and spar until they’re called to fight during Ragnarök. Valhalla’s portrayal in popular culture makes it seem like the Norse version of Heaven, to the point some people view Valhalla as the goal for living a Heathen life.

In reality, the Norse Pagan view of death carries much greater nuance and is much different than the stereotypes found in media.

Death in Norse Pagan Worldview

In the Properties of Heathenry we learned that Norse Heathenry is a life-affirming religion, or what is known as an imminent faith in theology. This describes a spiritual outlook that prioritizes life experience and well-being over concerns of the afterlife. This stands in contrast to a transcendent faith, which focuses on attaining a certain afterlife or ascension after death.

Because of this, the view of death in Norse Paganism is inherently different from views found in transcendent religions such as Christianity, Buddhism, Taoism, and others. A few important differences are as follows:

  • Life is not lived to achieve a good afterlife/reincarnation or to avoid a bad afterlife/reincarnation. Instead it is lived to cultivate current fulfillment and well-being.
  • A good after life is guaranteed.
  • The line between life and death is blurry, just like the line between the spiritual and mundane is blurry. Death is seen as a gradual (and potentially nonlinear) transition of someone’s state of being, as opposed to a clear and definite departure from the mortal world. This is why ancestors can directly involve themselves in the affairs of their living family, and vice versa.
  • Death and the afterlife are not the focus or concern of Norse pagan practice unless a practitioner chooses to incorporate death-work or a transcendent philosophy into their spirituality. This is an exception rather than the rule in Norse Paganism.

Death in Norse Pagan Metaphysics

In the chapter on the multi-part soul, we learn that not all parts of the soul actually move into the afterlife after death. Here’s what happens to the various parts:

Hamr – Because the hamr is the spiritual essence of the physical body, it extinguishes with the body.

Hugr – This part, which corresponds with the mind, goes into the afterlife.

Fylgja – This part extinguishes, like the hamr.

Hamingja – This part is reincarnated somewhere along the family line.

Because this may be difficult to understand, allow me to provide an example using my own beliefs:

Personally, I believe in reincarnation. However, I don’t have the same body (hamr) in every lifetime, nor do I have the same mind and personality (hugr) in every lifetime. Because I’m effectively a different person in every life, my fylgja is also different. But my hamingja ties these lifetimes together and makes them all my past incarnations. (In this way, I could theoretically talk to an ancestor of mine who is also one of my past lives—because I could talk to the hamr of that lifetime.)

Of course, this is simply one way of looking at the metaphysics of death. Many Norse pagans develop their theories around death as they see fit.

The Afterlife

Pre-Christian Norse Afterlife

Unfortunately, the afterlife beliefs held by pre-Christian Old Norse civilizations remain extremely murky. Based on archaeological evidence and folklore, it’s likely the view of the afterlife amounted to a few things:

  • The belief that people would be reunited with their ancestors after death.
  • The belief that someone’s afterlife would be spent doing what that person liked doing in life.
  • The belief that the deceased could be called upon to aid their living family.
  • A superstition that the dead could and would return as restless spirits (revenants or draugr) if their death was not to their liking, if they were known for a bad temperament, or if they felt like they had unfinished business.

The blurry line between life and death also poses another interesting blurry line: The difference between “ancestor,” “spirit,” or even “local deity.” The animistic nature of Norse Heathenry suggests these distinctions were very fluid to the pre-Christian Norse people.

The Halls of the Afterlife

The introduction of Christianity to Scandinavia moved Old Norse civilizations from an imminent faith model to a transcendent faith model, which changed the way they viewed the afterlife. This transition brought about a hybrid model of the afterlife, which is elegantly captured in Snorri Sturluson’s Gylfaginning.

This model introduces numerous realms or Halls one could enter after death, many of which are painted as far more desirable than the old, boring underworld. However, a person had to live—or usually die—a specific way in order to achieve these afterlives.

Some of these Halls are listed below:

Fólkvangr

Fólkvangr is found in the Icelandic Eddas and in Egil’s Saga. It is described as one of the places for people who die in battle. It belongs to the goddess Freyja, who is said to have the first pick of fallen warriors before Odin. The name of Freyja’s hall proper is Sessrumnir.

Valhalla

Odin’s hall for warriors who fell on the battlefield. These warriors were gathered up by valkyries to become einherjar, warriors training to fight for Odin during the doomed war, Ragnarök. The einherjar would spend their afterlives feasting and skirmishing until this day.

Rán’s Hall

Those who died at sea were thought to rest in Rán’s watery abode at the bottom of the ocean, not an uncommon occurrence during the Viking age.

Hel/Helheim

Hel, or Helheim, is the Norse underworld, the place where people go when they die of old age or sickness. It’s not a bad place, but it’s also not described by Snorri as being particularly delightful either.

“Hel” is the name for both the Norse goddess of death and her abode in Niflheim, the world of darkness. 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”).

The underworld of Helheim is located in the north, the direction of death in Scandinavian folklore. It’s separated from the realm of the living by the river Gjöll, which is spanned by the gilded bridge Gjallarbrú. The sound of a living crossing this bridge is deafening compared to the footsteps of the dead. The road to Hel is guarded by a wolf called Garm.

According to Snorri, Helheim is comprised of nine realms, but what all nine are was never described. One of them, however, is Náströnd, which is where the worst of human offenders go.

The dead of Helheim were prophesied to fight against the Aesir deities during Ragnarök.

Náströnd

“Corpse Shore.” This Hall was perhaps inspired by Christian interpretations of Revelations. Náströnd is located in Helheim and is said to be a hall adorned with the spines of serpents with a roof that leaks poison upon its inhabitants. It’s also the dwelling of Nidhogg, a dragon who gnaws on the roots of Yggdrasil. He chews upon the corpses in Náströnd.

Andlang & Vidblain

These are heavenly realms mentioned by Snorri. Vidblain in particular would protect people from Surtr’s fires during Ragnarök, but until then these heavens are reserved for the Alvar.

Gimlé

A shining heavenly hall that would rise up after all else was destroyed during Ragnarök.

Helgafjell

The Holy Mountain, where people go to be reunited with their ancestors. Perhaps the hall that most closely resembles the old animistic view of the Norse afterlife.

The Afterlife in Modern Norse Paganism

Modern Heathen practitioners are free to develop their own ideas about the afterlife. Because Norse Heathenry is decentralized, so are concepts about death.

Very often, Norse heathens will latch on to whatever concept best suits their own values. For some, this means adopting a transcendent worldview in hopes of attaining Valhalla or Fólkvangr. For others, it means interpreting Helheim similar to the Old Norse underworld, viewing it as a warm and welcoming Hall where they join their ancestors after death. Others believe in reincarnation, and may or may not consider the Halls as temporary waypoints between lives. Others yet believe they can choose wherever they’d like to go regardless of how they live or die.

Keep this in mind: The idea that life must be lived a certain way to demonstrate Heathen identity is a holdover from protestantism. Not all Norse Heathens want to go to places like Valhalla, but they are no less Heathen for holding this view. However you choose to see it, your philosophies on death and the afterlife are yours alone to develop.

Interview with Alexandra Ravenscroft, Norse Death Worker and M.Div.

Wights and Ancestors: Heathenry in a Living Landscape by Jenny Blaine

Encyclopedia of Norse and Germanic Folklore, Mythology, and Magic by Claude Lecouteaux

Trolldom: Spells and Methods of the Norse Folk Magic Tradition by Johannes Björn Gårdbäck

Edda by Snorri Sturluson (Faulkes translation)

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Developing a Practice

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