There’s a common idea in Norse mythology that Valhalla is where one goes when they die, but it’s not quite as simple as that. Rather more complex, legends say there are several different directions a soul could go after death.
Valhöll (Valhalla): “The Hall of the Fallen,” and the noble hall of the Æsir Odin, located in Asgard. One may be taken to Valhalla only after dying in combat, and even then, the valkyries will take only half of the fallen warriors – also called einherjar – to the resplendent hall. (The other half goes to Fólkvangr) Furthermore, you must be a particularly talented and honorable warrior to be considered for the fabled Valhöll. The einherjar are to await there until the legendary Ragnarøkkr (Ragnarök), when they will join Odin in a final battle.
According to the Poetic Edda, Odin himself describes Valhalla as shining and golden, and that, “it rises peacefully when seen from afar.” The rafters are made with massive spear shafts, the roof is thatched with warriors’ shields, and coats of mail are strewn along the benches. A wolf hangs above the western doors, and an eagle hangs above that. The hall is a colossal size, bearing five hundred and forty doors that eight hundred men can pass through at once, from which the einherjar will flow during Ragnarök to engage the wolf Fenrir. Above Valhalla is a massive tree called Læraðr. Grazing on the tree is a giant goat named Heiðrún, whose udders produce the mead the warriors drink each night. There’s also a giant stag named Eikþyrnir, whose antlers drip water through the hall and into Hvergelmir – the spring from which all waters flow. When the einherjar are not spending their nights feasting and drinking, they dress in battle attire and spar one another – occasionally getting injured or even slain. Of course, they will heal and live once more in time for the evening’s usual festivities. – Photo: “Unnamed landscape” by merl1ncz / Deviantart
Fólkvangr: While half of the fallen soldiers go to feast in Valhalla, the other half
go to the Vanir Freyja’s meadow-realm: Fólkvangr, “field of the people.” Like Valhalla, it’s believed that residents will feast and drink and fight in the fields. Unlike Valhalla, however, elite fallen warriors aren’t the only ones who may enter the meadowlands; one does not even need to die in combat to come here. In this domain, Freyja resides in her hall, Sessrúmnir – described simply as fair and vast. The requirements to come here are uncertain. Fólkvangr doesn’t have half as much detail as Valhalla; we can simply imagine expansive meadows and fields.
Hel: Hel is ruled by (and named for) the jötunn, Hel and exists under one of the three roots of Yggdrasil (the other two leading to the realms of mankind and the frost jötnar [giants]). Hel is where the wicked go, or those who die of sickness or old age, and likely the most common destination after death in Norse mythology. It’s described as “the cold, dark north,” having “valleys so deep and dark that nothing can be seen.” In Hel, there is a river named Gjöll, which separates the dead from the living, and gives off the sound of clashing swords, and above it, a bridge roofed in shimmering gold. While the dark and cold often have negative connotations, it is disputed whether Hel is a place of suffering; many view darkness as something peaceful.
Additionally, souls are often able to reunite with their friends and families there. Despite its remote location, Hel has been visited often by mortals, Æsir and Vanir alike. In fact, it was visited so frequently that the Norse invented the term Helvegr, or “Hel road.”
The Realm of Rán: Another domain named after its ruler: the jötunn, Rán. As a personification of the sea, naturally, her realm is deep into the abyssal, cavernous sea. This is where those who die at sea often end up, and rightfully so; the mighty depths were not an uncommon place to die for Vikings. While her jötunn husband Ægir embodies the friendly aspects of the sea, Rán seemingly resembles the sinister. Her very name means “thief,” for she steals unfortunate seafarers from their ships and drags them into their watery graves. The oceanic couple are said to have a magnificent hall on the floor of the sea, though remains unnamed.
The Burial Mound: Sometimes, the soul of the deceased would not be taken to a domain nor dimension, but remain where the body was buried, often in an ancient burial mound – and would then become known as a haugbui, or “mound-dweller” who could not leave the grave. Conversely, a soul could also become a draugr, “one who walks after death,” and could leave the burial mound to terrorize the living. It’s worth noting that the draugr are not spectral beings that walk through walls – but lethal and malevolent reanimated corpses in physical form who haunt their former family, dwellings or communities – sometimes even killing humans and livestock.
Stories tell that the draugr are supernaturally taller and stronger than their human bodies were, and said to be “blue as Hel.” Legend says that the haugbui, however, means no harm unless their grave has been disturbed. These souls are deeply attached to the place they’ve been buried in and have no desire to leave it.
Rebirth: Although not mentioned often, there are stories and theories of reincarnation. Yet, one can only be reborn in either one of their own descendants, or somebody who was named after him or her. There is even the suggestion of transmigration – being born as a different species, although only fragments of the idea are left. The Norse, and stretching further back into their ancient Germanic roots, felt the boundaries between man and beast could be fairly flexible. Even in life, the concept of shapeshifting into animals was tangible. People were often named after animals, such as bears, wolves or birds. It’s even suggested that the legendary Beowulf’s name means, “bee wolf,” or bear. What’s also worth a mention is both the Úlfhéðnar and Berserker warriors. Fabled to don the pelts of wolves, the spirit of the animal were said to inhabit the Úlfhéðnar, and fought in a trance-like fury during battle. The Berserker was the bear version of the Úlfhéðnar.. Considering that, the theory of being born from or into the body of a beast doesn’t seem quite so far-fetched.
The ideas of salvation and damnation; the black and white of the afterlife, were considered foreign to the ancient Norse. Many today who believe in a form of an afterlife view it as a reward or punishment for their moral or ideological choices in life, but the Norse held no such notion. Not to mention, the lines between each realm is blurry, and often overlapping; it’s not understood what criteria is to be met in order to walk through any of these doors, nor is there a definite entity that decides it. To make matters more complicated, much of what we know of Norse mythology is obscured with lack of written accounts – and what accounts exist were written generations after the wave of Christian influence arrived in Scandinavia. For example, Christian Icelandic historian and poet Snorri Sturluson (1179-1241) was known for attempting to impose a systematization on his source material that isn’t present in his sources. That said, if there is more or less truth to these various options for the afterlife, which direction would your soul take when the time comes? Will you fight and feast with the Allfather in the exalted Valhöll? Will you search for your loved ones in the dark depths of Hel? Or will you return to Midgard (Earth) once again in the body of your descendant? Perhaps you already have – perhaps you were here a thousand years ago, returned for some mysterious reasoning you may yet understand.
— Written by Jennifer Dobrowski
The Poetic Edda. Grímnismál
The Poetic Edda. Völuspá
Snorri Sturluson. The Prose Edda. Gylfaginning