“Much is easily recognized by those who come to Óðinn’s,
to see his household;
a wolf hangs west of the door
and an eagle stoops above.”
Quote from Grímnismál, translated by Edward Pettit
No part of the Norse afterlife is more famous than Valhalla. You can find it in the Marvel universe, it’s referred to in shows like Vikings and The Last Kingdom, it’s the subject of many heavy metal songs (one of my personal favorites is Judas Priest’s “Halls of Valhalla” from the Redeemer of Souls album), and you can read about it in books by Rick Riordan and Neil Gaiman, among others.
But as interesting and famous as Valhalla is (and I’ll get back there in a bit, I promise) it was not the only place where a Norse worshiper might end up after death.
First up, a couple of disclaimers. Most of what we know of pagan Norse beliefs comes from sources written down after Christianity had taken hold, meaning they don’t always describe the pagan faith accurately. Second, the Norse religion wasn’t an organized religion like the religions we’re familiar with today. For one thing, there was no written canon of religious texts, meaning traditions, stories, and beliefs were naturally changeable and diverse. What people believed, and how (and who) they worshiped varied between regions, between different social groups and communities, and also changed over time. This means that what has been passed down to us, are many different, often contradictory, stories about the Norse faith, and about the possible destinations for the dead in the afterlife.
Mounds and Mountains
Around the Norse world, many people believed that the dead spent the afterlife living in their burial mounds, hanging out there much like they would in their house or hall. Families would bring offerings of food and drink to the mound or barrow for the ancestors to enjoy, and sometimes doors were even built into the mounds for this purpose.
In some places, it was believed that the ancestors “went into” a local mountain or hill after death and spent the afterlife feasting and carousing there. Sometimes, their descendants might be lucky enough to catch a glimpse of them in the mountain and be reassured that the dead were waiting for them to eventually join the party.
Another possible destination for the dead was the realm of Hel. Hel was the name of a place, and the name of its female ruler, often said to be Loki’s daughter (his other children included Jörmungand, the world-encircling serpent, and the wolf Fenrir). The Icelandic poet and saga writer Snorri Sturluson describes Hel as a place of hunger, pain, and deprivation, much like the Christian Hell. However, some older sources hint at a less hellish Hel, and some historians think that Snorri’s description might have been mostly his own invention, or at least heavily influenced by Christianity.
In Grímnismál, Hel is said to be located beneath a root of the world tree Yggdrasil. Other sources say it could be found underground and to the north. Several tales describe how living people, and gods, traveled to Hel, usually in order to retrieve a soul or gain some hidden knowledge from the dead. To get to Hel, you had to cross a river, and once you arrived, the place was surrounded by a wall with a gate designed to keep out the living. Sometimes that gate was guarded by a dog called Garm. Odin himself was said to have once traveled to the edge of Hel to find out why his son Baldur was having such ominous nightmares. And when Baldur was killed, as those nightmares had foretold, the god Hermod went to retrieve him from Hel. He failed, but that’s another story.
Freya was the much beloved goddess of love, sex, fertility, war, and seiðr (the magic of foretelling and shaping the future). As a true multi-tasking deity, she also ruled a realm in the afterlife, and her realm was called Fólkvangr (meaning “people-field” or “army-field”). It’s easy to think that Valhalla was the one and only place where chieftains and fighters ended up after death, especially if they died in battle, but according to Grímnismál, Freya claimed half of the “weapon-dead” and brought them to Fólkvangr, while the other half went to Valhalla:
“there Freyja decides
the choice of seats in the hall;
half the slain she selects each day,
and Óðinn has [the other] half.”
Freya was an immensely popular goddess and plays a part in many myths and stories (tragic, bawdy, and otherwise) but few details are known about Fólkvangr, except that there was a field there called Sessrúmnir (meaning “seat-room” or “seat-roomer”), which was also the name of Freya’s hall in that realm, as well as the name of a ship. Some historians have speculated that there might be a connection between Sessrúmnir as a field and hall in the afterlife, Sessrúmnir as a ship, and the stone ship burials in old Scandinavia.
Sign-up for Letters From The Psychopomp
a weekly letter from The Psychopomp about Death, and the latest from Psychopomp.com:
Rán was the goddess of the sea, wife of Ægir, ruler of the sea. Often, skalds would refer to the sea as Rán’s country, Rán’s hall, Rán’s way, and Rán’s bed. Many poems and tales also mention Rán’s net which she used to ensnare people and ships, dragging them down beneath the waves. Considering how common it must have been for the seafaring Norse to be lost at sea, it’s not surprising that Rán is often described as a pitiless and terrifying deity who stole lives, ships, and treasure. Her realm is not described in detail in the old sources, but she is mentioned in the Icelandic Eyrbyggja saga. In that tale, there’s a haunting description of a man name Thorod and his shipmates who all drowned in a storm, their bodies lost at sea. Later, Thorod and his men show up dripping wet at their own funeral ale (a ritual celebration for the dead involving feasting and drinking). Somewhat surprisingly, this was considered a good sign, indicating that they had been well taken care of by Rán.
Back to Valhalla, then, a place that is vividly described in many Norse texts, including Grímnismál:
“the house is raftered with shafts, the hall is thatched with shields,
the benches [are] bestrewn with mail-coats…
Five hundred doors and forty
are in Valhǫll, so I think;
eight hundred unique champions walk from one door,
when they go to fight the wolf.”
There’s a wealth of these evocative details in the stories about Valhalla, showing us All-Father Odin in his high seat, accompanied by his two ravens Hugin and Munin, and his two wolves Geri and Freki, wielding his spear Gungnir and wearing his magical ring Draupnir which multiplied every ninth night by producing “eight gold rings of equal weight.” In his great hall, he mingles with the dead fighters, the einhärjar, brought by the Valkyries straight from the battles where they died, and everyone spends every single day feasting and fighting, preparing for the final battle of Ragnarök.
Grímnismál also mentions some of the lesser-known features of Valhalla including the magical pig Särimner who was slaughtered every day to feed the einhärjar, and then came back to life the next morning ready to be eaten all over again. The man in charge of cooking Särimner was called Andrimner, and (because everything had to have a name in Valhalla), he used a pot called Eldrimner. There was also a goat named Heiðrún in Valhalla, and she was beloved by the einhärjar because her udder produced mead rather than milk.
While Valhalla is often described as a place reserved for fighters and men, the old sources indicate that women could also get there, and not just by dying as shield-maidens. Several tales mention women who die with their husbands or lovers and look forward to reuniting with them in Odin’s Hall. Sometimes, these women are burned alive or burn themselves to death in order to join their partners in the afterlife.
There was also another gruesome way to punch a ticket to Valhalla even if you didn’t die in battle: being sacrificed to Odin. These sacrificial victims were usually hanged, strangled, or killed with a spear—Odin’s weapon of choice.
Finally, some Norse believed in a completely different fate after death: rebirth. In particular, many believed that a person could be reborn within the same family. Sometimes, this was associated with the practice of naming a child after an ancestor, usually a grandparent.
One of the most famous examples of this is Olaf II of Norway (later known as St. Olaf) who was believed by some of his followers to be the reincarnation of his grandfather, Ólafr Geirstaðaalfr of the famed House of Yngling. Of course, as a good Christian, Olaf denied it, but the tales lived on regardless.
deyr sialfr it sama;
ec veit einn
at aldri deýr:
domr vm dꜹþan hvern.”
and the same with you;
but I know of something that never dies
and that’s a dead person’s deeds.
From The Poetic Edda, translated by Henry Adams Bellows