Saturday, 1 April 2017

Germanic Beliefs Regarding the Afterlife

"Ingeborg" by Zorn (1907)
One thing of which we can be certain is that the pre-Christian Germanic peoples generally believed that the spirit continued on in some way after death. The popular presentation of the afterlife presented by Snorri Sturluson invites us to think of a sort of Viking heaven, called Valhalla, where slain warriors battle perennially by day, followed by lavish feasting and drinking in Odin’s hall. Alternately, some warriors go to a seemingly similar place overseen by Freyja, the Folkvangar – “wherever she rides in battle, half of the slain belong to her. Odin takes the other half” (Prose Edda at 35). For those who do not die violently Helheim is at least one of the major destinations of the dead. This apparent underworld is perhaps a place of latent dormancy, for from here Baldr (the slain son of Odin) and Hod (another slain God) will emerge when the next cycle of life begins after the world destroying events of Ragnarök. Aside from Sturluson, other sources on Germanic religion indicate a profound and beautiful approach to understanding the afterlife – a topic which we can be sure our Germanic ancestors would have considered deeply, given how comparatively frequent their confrontations with death were.

The afterlife as paradise 

Afterlife beliefs of Vikings who went east There are several accounts concerning Nordic ideas about the afterlife recorded by medieval Muslim travellers who encountered the Rus – a people who were almost certainly Swedish Vikings who went east, or descended from such. The most famous is the account of Ibn Fadlan, who records the details of a Rus funeral in the 9th century. His record indicates that it was thought that cremation hastened the spirit to an afterlife paradise and whatever was burned with a man would travel with him, including sacrificed animals and a slave-girl, who volunteered herself. He wrote that before she was ritually strangled and stabbed:
“[The dead man’s family] led the slave girl towards something which they had constructed and which looked like the frame of a door. She placed her feet on the palms of the hands of the men, until she could look over the frame. She said some words and they let her down. They raised her a second time and she did as she had the first and then they set her down again. And a third time and she did as she had done the other two. Then they brought her a chicken. She cut off its head and tossed it away. Then they took the chicken and threw it on to the boat. 
I asked the interpreter what she had been doing. He replied: ‘The first time they lifted her she said: [‘“There I see my father and my mother”’] ‘The second time, she said: ‘“There [I see] all my dead relatives [sitting].” ‘And the third time she said: ‘“There [I see my master sitting in] Paradise and [Paradise is green and beautiful.] There are men with him and [young people, and he is calling me.] Take [me to him.”’ … [Lunde and Stone, Ibn Fadlan and the Land of Darkness: Arab Travellers in the Far North at 52].”
Why the slave girl volunteered herself to burn with her master is made explicit by another traveller of the 10th century, Mas’udi, who wrote:
“The Pagans who live in this country [of the Khazars] belong to many different races, among which are … the Rus, who live in one of the two parts of the city. They burn their dead on pyres along with their horses, arms and equipment. When a man dies, his wife is burned alive with him … If a man dies before marriage, he is given a posthumous wife. The women passionately want to be burned, because they believe they will enter paradise [ibid at 132].”
Ibn Fadlan’s account makes it clear that the women who burned would not necessarily enter the funeral pyre alive (this is suttee, a tradition which survived amongst some of our Indo-European cousins in India until relatively recently), and that it was not always the case that wives were burnt with their husbands (even where wives wished to travel with their husbands to the afterlife it must have often been that they were prevented from doing so by reason of their responsibilities as mothers); Istakhri, a 10th century Persian, confirms this:
“The Rus are a people who burn their dead. Slave girls are burned with the wealthy of their own volition [ibid at 159].”
Miskawayh, a Persian writing in the 10th century, wrote of a Rus funeral that did not involve cremation, but included valuable death-goods nonetheless (similar to those described by Ibn Fadlan), and also described the possibility of substituting slave girls for wives as afterlife companions:
“When one of them died they buried him with his arms, clothes and equipment, along with his wife or another of his women, and his slave, if he happened to be fond of him, as was their custom. After they left, the Muslims dug up the graves and found a number of swords, which are in great demand to this day for their sharpness and excellence [ibid at 151].”
The afterlife as conceived by the Rus was clearly populated with many women, who accompanied their husbands, lovers or masters to the next world. Moreover it is described as a “paradise”, which is “green and beautiful”. The violent and drunken Valhalla as described by Sturluson does not sound like the kind of place where women would “passionately” want to go, which suggests that the Rus afterlife, at its best, was thought to be a lush and prosperous place.

Source: vikingdrinkinghorns.com
Ascending to Asgard – the afterlife of Ragnar Lodbrok The recreated death-song of Ragnar Lodbrok (in the Krákumál), who was thrown into a snake pit by the king of Northumbria in the 9th century, suggests that the Norse author of the Krákumál thought Ragnar would go to the land of the Aesir (revered Gods in Norse religion, such as Odin, Thor and Tyr) upon his death.
“It gladdens me to know that Balder’s father [Odin] makes ready the benches for a banquet. Soon we shall be drinking ale from the curved horns. The champion who comes into Odin’s dwelling does not lament his death. I shall not enter his hall with words of fear upon my lips. 
The Aesir will welcome me. Death comes without lamenting … Eager am I to depart. The Disir [female spirits, possibly Valkyries] summon me home, those whom Odin sends for me from the halls of the Lord of Hosts. Gladly shall I drink ale in the high-seat with the Aesir. The days of my life are ended. I laugh as I die [cited in Davidson, Gods and Myths of Northern Europe at 150].”
If Ragnar is describing Valhalla as Vikings really perceived it, this account directly contradicts some modern speculations asserting that Valhalla is actually a place within gloomy Helheim, the underworld of the dead. What Ragnar is describing sounds much more like Asgard than Helheim, for this is the more usual abode of the Aesir, and his description certainly has the feel of paradise about it. Thinking intuitively, there is absolutely no way that Vikings could have garnered courage in battle by thinking they may end up in bleak Helheim upon their death. Likewise, as much as Vikings and their Germanic predecessors may have enjoyed and looked forward to the fury of battle it seems improbable that they wished to endure the pain of being violently injured or killed on a daily basis* (as happens in Sturluson’s version of Valhalla – as a Christian he had no need to make Valhalla seem like the kind of place people would genuinely want to go). However, Sturluson’s descriptions of afterlife feasting in the hall of Odin does accord with Ragnar’s death-song, thus it is probably safe to assume that this aspect of Valhalla aligns with genuine Norse beliefs about an Odinic paradise. Note too that Ragnar proclaims his fearlessness – based on what we know of heroic figures associated with Odin it seems likely that fearlessness is an essential characteristic of those who gain entry to Valhalla.

Sturluson claims that only those who die in battle can go to be with Odin in the afterlife, but clearly this is false for Ragnar does not die in battle. If we incorporate the descriptions of the Rus into our vision of the afterlife it is clear that sacrificed people of either gender can also enter paradise. Davidson observes:
“The idea of entering Odin’s hall after death is well supported by literary evidence. Those who die in the God’s service, undergoing a violent death either by battle or by sacrifice, had the entry into his realm … women too had the right of entry into Odin’s realm … They could be strangled and stabbed and burned after death … a violent death was demanded as the price of entry [Gods and Myths of Northern Europe at 149-152].” 
She goes on to suggest (op cit, and at 51-52) that cremation may be a prerequisite, alongside a violent death, for reaching Odin’s hall in the afterlife. Query though whether a violent death really is a prerequisite  if Ragnar was killed in a snake pit he was likely killed by poison, not strictly speaking by violence. Even a base coward can die a violent death but to die fearlessly, as Ragnar did, and as the women of the Rus did, that is admirable, that is something really special. 

It may also be that deaths brought about via medical emergencies which involve constriction of breath (and are thus akin to strangulation) are instances of either Odinic intervention, or perhaps a means of death which implies the potentiality of entry into Valhalla**  if, that is, death was met without fear. Note that many victims of snake bite ultimately die from respiratory failure. 

Given the notorious reputation Germanic men had as fearless warriors, from the Roman era to the twilight of the Viking age, it is certain that they both believed in and hoped to go to paradise, which includes the Odinic afterlife which we call Valhalla and possibly Freyja’s Folkvangr. Whichever paradise they ended up in – there may well have been several – it appears to have been thought of as a verdant place, with plenty of good food, good drink and good company (and probably war games too, at least in Odin’s Valhalla). Anything less could not have induced the Germanic people to live so bravely and so bold.

* Although if hugely popular games like Call of Duty and Dark Souls are any thing to go by perhaps incessant warfare and repeated deaths can be appealing?
** It is well established that strangulation and hanging are associated with Odin, so much so that one of his epithets is Hangagud, meaning literally "hanging-God"; this being a reference to the Shamanic ritual he underwent before discovering the Runes. For the suicidal reader I note that though hanging and violent deaths may be associated with Odin it seems that fearlessness is perhaps the greater quality of those who enter his hall. I question the fearlessness of a person who attempts suicide when doing so breaches responsibilities held towards family or sworn friends. Sometimes it is the braver thing to keep on living and embrace duty.

Underworld realms of the dead

Illustration by Froud; source: ariberk.com
Not all Germanic people are fearless; not all go to Valhalla or Folkvangr. Some die in their beds. Some die of illness. It is generally thought these people go, at least sometimes, to Hel – also known as Helheim. Despite the shared name Hel is not the same as Hell as conceived by Christians, but that does not mean that Helheim is necessarily a desirable afterlife, for Helheim is ruled over by the Goddess Hel, daughter of the reviled Loki. However, on a more optimistic note, the fact that Baldr and Hod will emerge from Hel at the start of a new age, following the destructive events of Ragnarök, suggests that Hel may be a sort of interim place between death and rebirth.

In episode 24 of The History of English Podcast (on Germanic mythology) Stroud makes some interesting (though not necessarily infallibly true) observations, which may be pertinent:
“… it appears that the Germanic people believed that there was a realm of the dead within the ocean and other bodies of water. When prominent tribe members or leaders died, a special ship was prepared for the deceased’s final voyage … The Northern Germanic tribes had access to the North Sea and the Baltic Sea. So they believed that the kingdom of the dead existed at the bottom of the sea. But the southern and eastern Germanic tribes … tended to believe that the kingdom of the dead existed in certain lakes. The ritual of ship burial was linked to this belief because a dead king might need his ship to travel to this underwater kingdom of the dead. 
And we can also see this belief in certain words in Modern English. For example, the words soul (‘S-O-U-L’) and sea (‘S-E-A’) both derive from the same common Germanic root word. That original Germanic word was *saiwaz – and it meant lake or inland sea. And that word eventually became sea in modern English. But that root word also produced the later Germanic word *saiwa-lô which meant ‘something belonging to a lake or deriving from a lake.’ And that term later evolved into the Modern English word soul. The word soul can be specifically traced back to Germanic dialects spoken in southern and eastern Germany where lakes were considered the place where souls returned at death. But interestingly, that early word for ‘soul’ isn’t found in the early northern Germanic dialects. So it appears that the word soul was originally connected to lakes, but not the sea. 
By the way, many scholars also think this is the connection to the old belief that the stork delivered newborn babies. This belief apparently originated within the Germanic regions of northern Europe and it reflects the idea that there is a place beneath the lake where souls live – in this case souls that haven’t yet been born as humans. 
Also, remember that the original Germanic concept of Hel was not a place of fire and brimstone – that’s the Christian version. The original Germanic version was an underwater kingdom of dead souls. And in fact, there is some interesting etymology here as well. The name of the goddess Hel (‘H-E-L’) – and her underwater kingdom called Hel – actually can be traced back to the original Indo-European language. The Indo-European root word was *kel which meant ‘to cover or conceal.’ … The original ‘k’ sound became an ‘h’ sound in the original Germanic language. So kel became hel. But again, it came from a root word meaning ‘to cover or conceal.’ So we can see that connection to an underwater kingdom which is concealed or covered by a lake [historyofenglishpodcast.com].”
So possibly there was a deeply ancient belief that souls both emerged from water and descended into the unknown depths of a watery world after death. We do know that belief in reincarnation or rebirth of some kind was common amongst pre-Christian Germanic people (Elder Edda at 145). Possibly Hel is a place of latency, or even hibernation, where souls reside in a state of death until they are reborn afresh, as it is said will happen to Baldr. A parallel to the story of Baldr exists in Greco-Roman mythology (recalling that the Greco-Romans are the Indo-European cousins of the Germanic people), and tends to support the idea of the underworld of the dead being a place from which life could eventually emerge – it is said that Persephone resides in the world of the dead (Hades) during winter but emerges into the world of the living every spring.

The extent to which Hel is watery is unclear. Supporting the watery association with Hel are the descriptions of Hel being surrounded by a resounding river, and interestingly rivers are also strongly present in the Greco-Roman concept of Hades, which is more or less analogous to Hel. Likewise, in the Hindu religion of our Indo-European cousins in India, the fortress of the God of death (Yama) is surrounded by a river, and his mount is a water buffalo. We know also that Hel is generally placed below the world tree Yggdrasil and so too are three important wells – Urdarbrunnr, Hvergelmir and Mimisbrunnr. It is perhaps also relevant that Jörmungandr, the world serpent who lies deep at the bottom of the sea biting its own tail, is the mythological brother of the Goddess Hel*

On the other hand, Stroud is not an expert on Germanic religion, he is a linguist, and it may be that he has simply confused the apparently mostly very pleasant undersea realm of Aegir and Ran with Helheim. So long as one has gold on one’s corpse, it is thought that Aegir and Ran provide hospitality to the drowned dead – their world is thought to be a watery paradise (Gods and Myths at 129; Scandinavian Mythology at 107).**

So Hel is not the same as Hell, in that it is not a place of eternal torment and it may be as watery as the Christian Hell is fiery, but that is not to say that afterlife punishments have no place in traditional Germanic beliefs. There is said to be a dark hall of the dead made from serpents’ spines where venom drips through the roof, it is reserved for false-sworn men, murderers and seducers of married women (Elder Edda at 10). Likewise, it may be that certain women could be trapped under the roots of a tree in the afterlife as punishment for living dishonourably (Elder Edda at 287). This punishment is possibly part of one of the grimmer parts of Helheim – for Hel itself is said to lie beneath the roots of the world tree Yggdrasil.

* Interestingly and possibly relevantly (regarding the proposition that water is associated with both death and rebirth), Jörmungandr is strongly reminiscent of the Ouroboros of Greco-Egyptian mythology (a serpent which bites its own tail), which represents “the unity of all things, material and spiritual, which never disappear but perpetually change form in an eternal cycle of destruction and re-creation” (EncyclopædiaBritannica).
** This notion of the need for the dead to provide some kind of payment to an infernal deity is extremely similar to the Greco-Roman stories that speak of the need to pay Charon so that he may ferry the dead to Hades. Given that those who died on land were ideally buried or burned with grave-goods that were often quite valuable it is possible that some of their possessions were likewise intended as payment to afterlife deities.

The dead as ancestor-spirits of the land

Yggdrasil; image source: taringa.net
In one of the accounts of Rus funeral practices, described above, burial is indicated rather than cremation, and of course archeological findings confirm that many Germanic people were laid in burial mounds until Christianisation. Perhaps where this happened the dead hoped to reach that place the other half of warriors are said to go – Folkvangr, hosted by Freyja of the Vanir. For those buried close to home perhaps it was intended they continue to reside in this world as spirits of the land, thus perhaps as elves, who could live on with, and provide assistance to, their kin (though there was also the possibility they would become violent draugr). It seems that those inhumed in burial mounds were thought to potentially live on after death as spirits connected with the land. Davidson notes that there “seems to be some link between elves and the dead within the earth” (Scandinavian Mythology at 117). The Vanir God Freyr, brother of Freyja, is said to be Lord of Alfheim, the world of the elves, which he was given as a tooth-gift (a tooth-gift is similar to a Christening gift). He too is said to have been laid in a burial mound and offerings were made to him there; a practice which appears to have been mirrored in the rites of Germanic ancestor veneration (Gods and Myths at 154-155).  

A burial mound is of course a diminutive of a mountain and there is evidence to suggest that some pre-Christian Germanic people believed that the chosen dead, including families, lived on within sacred mountains (Gods and Myths at 158; Hasenfratz at 71-72). It is likely that in some cases ancestor veneration and reverence for specific mountains would have thus been intertwined.

The notion of the dead living on as localised spirits gives us an important insight into Germanic cosmology. The buried dead inhabit our world, Midgard, within the earth but they may also reside in at least one other world, such as Alfheim. Thus the various worlds of Yggdrasil are not altogether separate; rather there is a magical link between them, which allows for the possibility that some rare individuals (such as Hermod, who visited Baldr in Hel) can move between these worlds. Childhood stories in which humans visit fairy realms, or interact with helpful fairies, appear to be an echo of this belief.

Conclusion

Traditional Germanic attitudes to death appear to be consistent with belief in an afterlife of one kind or another, which implies belief in the human spirit, or soul. Unlike in Christianity, where there are essentially only two afterlife destinations, traditional Germanic religion allows for numerous afterlife destinations, some more pleasant than others, and one’s time in them is not necessarily eternal. Whether or not individual souls are eternal is another question, and is a subject which is far too vast for this blogpost, though it can be observed that in the Germanic stories death is oftentimes related to rebirth, or at least renewal, of one kind or another – for example, before the sun dies at Ragnarök she gives birth to another sun, thus allowing the cycle of life to go onwards, perhaps eternally. 

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Sources
  • Davidson, Gods and Myths of Northern Europe, Penguin
  • Davidson, Scandinavian Mythology, Paul Hamlyn
  • Elder Edda: Myths, Gods and Heroes from the Viking world, Penguin Books
  • Encyclopedia Britannica
  • Hasenfratz, Barbarian Rites: The Spiritual World of the Vikings and the Germanic Tribes, Inner Traditions
  • History of English Podcast
  • Ibn Fadlan, Ibn Fadlan and the Land of Darkness: Arab Travellers in the Far North, Penguin Classics
  • Poetic Edda: A New translation by Carolyne Larrington, Oxford World's Classics
  • Sturluson, Prose Edda, Penguin Classics


Written by M. Sentia Figula. Find me at neo polytheist and on Facebook 

2 comments:

  1. In 21 century the faith in Gods back to Europe. It's time to dump the chains of bondage! The Judeo-christianity destroyed Roman Empire. Now Europe is destroing by islam. Before christianity in Europe Germanic people lived with Slavs in and Roman people and it there was any big problems. Of course there was battles, conflicts, but when The Great Roman Empire was destroyed by the liers big problems in Europe was beginning. O.K. The Roman Empire did not reach the far North, like Finland, Sweden, Poland, Russia, but there people professed faith in the same Gods like in Roman Empire, but under other names. So there was similar a view on the creation of the world. Yggdrasil, Axis Mundi, Alatir are the same. So the conclusion is, we are the Tribe of Jupiter (in other languages called: Zeus, Taranis, Perun, Odin). So it's time to unite Europe from Lissabon to Vladivostock, without idiots and traitors which want to try destroy Europe another time, in this time using "refugees". And every manifestation the culture of Roman Empire is great and the best in the whole world! There was the Truly Law and true freedom. Also for gays and lesbians... AVE JUPITER, AVE EUROPA MAGNIFICA!

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    1. I do hope more of the children of Europe will embrace their indigenous spiritualities, which naturally have a great deal in common with each other, stemming largely, as they all do, from a common Into-European source, though I note that the Germanic God most similar to Jupiter is Thor, not Odin (Thor is a God of lightning and thunder, among others things). Of the Roman Gods Odin is most like Mercury. As Caesar pointed out about the Gauls - they revered the God which resembled Mercury the most - so too the Germanic people tend to revere Odin very highly, but Thor is also greatly revered. As for your political comments, I really do not trust any of the organisations that give us our news - they are all concerned primarily with tugging at our emotional strings so to keep fuelling addiction to their content. As I do not trust the news I have no facts upon which to form an opinion. I do think though that nations should put the best interests of their citizens before anything else (i.e., first and foremost serve the people who elected them); sometimes that will be compatible with taking a certain number of migrants and other times not so much.

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