In the literature of Ancient Scandinavia we can find something unique in Europe: a vast and great literature composed before the thirteenth century; clear incisive prose, and poetry whose stormy music echoes the wisdom of ancient times of heroes, gods and giants; and a mesmerizing way of writing, hidden meanings in between the lines, mystery and lore of matters ranging from morality, and how to be a kind human to other humans, rules of the war to spiritual mysteries, rites of passage and conversing with the spirit world.
And down from thennes faste he gan avyse
This litel spot of erthe, that with the se
Enbraced is, and fully gan despise
This wrccchcd world, and held al vanite
To respect of the pleyn felicite
That is in hevene above.
Chaucer, Troilus and Criseyde.
A study of the evidence for funeral customs in Scandinavia leaves us with the impression of two main conceptions preserved in literary tradition, one of another life after the body is destroyed, and the other of a life after death down in the earth where the body lies. Since the belief in an after-life after the destruction of the body seemed in several of the passages to be connected with the worship of Odin, the first part of the evidence to be examined in detail is the description of Odin’s paradise, Valhöll, as given in the poems and in Snorri’s Prose Edda.
The simplest form of the conception of life continuing down in the earth is that found in the Íslendinga Sögur, of the dead man dwelling in the grave-mound as in a house, and still enjoying his possessions there. There are also two more elaborate variations on this idea which must be considered; one is that of a gloomy underworld realm of the dead, and the other that of a kingdom of the dead inside the mountains. Understanding the extent and the consistence of these conceptions in the literature is, I think, of some importance, even though it is impossible to arrive at any conclusions as to whether we are dealing with memories of real beliefs or not from the evidence as it stands, for only in this way can the ground be cleared for further investigation.
For evidence about Odin’s dwelling at Valhöll, we first consult the Eddic poems. The Edda contains a number of poems of the ‘question and answer’ type, in which one character, god, giant or dwarf, tries to outdo another in his knowledge of cosmology and the future of the human and divine worlds, but these poems contain little information about the fate of mankind after death. In Vafþrúðnismál, a dialogue between Odin and the wise giant, Vafþrúðnir is asked who do battle each day in the courts of Odin. He replies that it is the einherjar—that is, single, or out-standing champions—who after choosing the slain and riding home from the battle sit at peace together. It is from Grímnismál, a monologue supposed to be spoken by Odin in as he sits in torment between the fires in the hail of Geirröðr, that we learn more of these einherjar.
Here the word is used more than once to describe the warriors who dwell with Odin, who, we are told, chooses certain of those killed in battle on earth to dwell with him in Valhöll, his bright dwelling in Glaðsheimr. The life they lead there is one of joy and feasting with no mention of the eternal conflict.. However the hall is full of shields and mailcoats, it is haunted by wolf and eagle, the creatures of battle, and is large enough to hold mighty hosts. There are over six hundred doors to the hall, and through each doorway will pour hundreds of to fight the wolf The poet goes on to give an account of the feasting in Valhöll; he tells of the boar Saehrímnir whose flesh feeds the warriors for ever, and of the bright mead from the goat Heiðrún, which will never give out. Eleven maidens, whose names are given, bear the cups to the warriors, and two more carry the horn to Odin, who himself needs no meat, and lives by wine alone. From verse 21 we assume that the host of the slain reaches Valhöll by wading the strong river Þund, and enters by the gate Valgrind, which is never closed. Lastly we notice the sinister reference to the day which will bring this life of revelry to a close, the day when the heroes will go out to fight the wolf. This practically ends the information about Valhöll in the poems. There are only brief and cryptic references to be added. Grímnismál itself tells us elsewhere that Freyja allots the seats in her hail, Folkvangr, to whom she will, and that she has half the slain that fall each day, while half belong to Odin. In Hárbarðsljóð the adversary of Thor, about whose identity there is no complete agreement, taunts him by the remark that Odin has the jarls who fall among the slain, but Thor the race of thralls. In Völuspá we have only the awakening of time warriors of Odin by the crowing of the cock Gollinkambi mentioned among the signs of the approaching doom at the end of all things.
The poems then do not give us much information, and what they do give comes mostly from one poem, Grímnismál. There is apparently some system of choice by which only part of the slain reach Valhöll, but what it is we do not know. There are a number of alternative possibilities suggested; Grímnismál tells us that Odin himself (Hroptr) chooses the slain, but also remarks, in verse 14, that Freyja chooses half of them for her own hall. In Vafþrúðnismál the choice is said to be the work of the einherjar. The eleventh-century poem, Darraðarljóð, tells us, on the other hand, that the Valkyries have the power to choose the slain. The expression kjósa val itself is difficult to interpret since it might mean to decide either (a) who is to fall in battle, or (b) who out of those slain may enter Valhöll.
If we turn from the Edda poems to Gylfaginning, the first part of Snorri’s Prose Edda, the first impression gained is that here we have plenty of evidence about Valhöll. This opening section is a kind of summary of the mythology, in the form of a dialogue between the insatiably curious and refreshingly ignorant Ganglier and three mysterious powers; and Valhöll is one of the subjects in which he is, naturally, very interested.
The two skaldic poems which go back to the tenth century, the Eiríksmál and the Hákonarmál, have both the same theme—the entry of a king into Valhöll after his death in battle. The picture they draw is in accordance with Grímnismál and Snorri, though the idea of the last great conflict is more stressed. Valhöll was certainly a familiar poetic theme in the tenth century, that could be used with great dramatic and emotional effect, but this tells us nothing as to how recent or real a belief it had been. But though Snorri and the earlier skaldic poets can be seen using the material at their disposal artistically, so that inconsistencies and problems are no longer visible, this is by no means true of Grímnismál. This poem assumes a background of knowledge lost to us, and there is no attempt to make an artistic whole out of the scraps of information vouchsafed in it. It does at least suggest that the Valhöll conception, as seized on with enthusiasm by the court poets and later by Snorri, was only one small part of a much larger conception, which the later writers have forgotten.
Snorri himself,. who as we have seen is relying exclusively on Grímnismál and Vafþrúðnismál in the Prose Edda, evidently knew of one other tradition at least, since he tells us in the Ynglinga Saga that those whose bodies were burnt went, to join. Odin in Valhöll after death, and their possessions with them. In one of the later sagas, Gautreks Saga, we have a fantastic opening chapter dealing with an absurd family of misers who sacrifice themselves to Odin on the slightest provocation, and their way of reaching Valhöll is to hurl themselves over a cliff. That this was a recognised form of sacrifice seems to be indicated by the words of the missionary Hjaiti, while the fact that Bede alludes to parties of men throwing themselves voluntarily over precipices suggests a survival of the same tradition in England. Moreover it is interesting to notice that in the story in Gautreks Saga a servant was on one occasion allowed to sacrifice himself with his master as a special privilege; of him it is said: ‘He is to enjoy happiness in his [i.e. the master’s] company. My father is quite sure that Odin will not come out to meet the thrall unless he is in his company.’
This odd story of the family who went in twos and threes ‘cheerfully and gladly to Odin’ reads like a parody or misunderstood echo of the tradition of dying by fire , which, as we have seen, appears to be connected with the conception of some kind of future life with Odin in a Valhöll which was not merely a paradise for warriors who fell in battle. We have the same note of fierce joy and certainty in the Krákumál, the death-song of Ragnarr Loðbrók:
It gladdens me ever to know that Balder’s father makes ready the benches for a banquet. Soon we shall be drinking the ale from the curved horns. The champion who comes to Fjölnir’s dwelling does not lament his death. I shall not come into Viðrir’s hall with words of fear on my lips (V, 25).
The Æsir will welcome me; death comes without lamenting..
I am eager to depart. The dísir summon me home, they whom Othin has sent to me from the halls of the Lord of hosts. Gladly shall I drink ale in the high-seat with the Æsir. The days of my life are ended. I die with a laugh (v, 29).
Ragnarr, it will be remembered, did not according to tradition die in battle. The poem itself as well as the saga states that he was killed by snakes at the command of Ella of Northumberland. This sounds like some kind of sacrificial death, and if so, this would explain Ragnarr’s firm conviction that he would be received by Odin.
- Hel’s Servant by UnripeHamadryad
Simek, Dictionary of Northern Mythology, Ynglingaättens Gravskick', ; H.R. Ellis, Road to Hel, Runes and their Origins, Moltke, Gundarsson, Spae-craft, Hávamál, Lokasenna, Flateyjarbók I, Prose Edda, Poetic Edda , P. Norlund, Viking Settlers in Greenland , H. R. Ellis, ‘Fostering by Giants in Saga Literature’, U. Holmberg, Mythology of all Races