All Viking warriors await a glorious death in battle to reach Valhalla, or at least that’s what pop culture would have us believe. But what is Valhalla? And what about those who did not want or could not get there?
Valhalla (Old Norse Valhöll , the ‘hall of the fallen’) is the room where the god Odin houses the deceased he deems worthy to dwell with him.
According to the Old Norse poem Grímnismál (‘The Song of the Hooded One’), the roof of Valhalla “golden and bright” is made of shields and has spears for beams. Seats made of shell surround the many banquet tables in the vast hall. Its gates are guarded by wolves, and eagles fly over it.
The dead who reside in Valhalla, the einherjar , live a life that would have been the envy of any Viking warrior. Throughout the day, they fight each other, performing countless brave deeds. But each night, all of his wounds heal and he is restored to full health. They sure have a big appetite with all those battles, and their dinners don’t disappoint. Its meat comes from the Saehrimnir boar , which comes back to life each time it is slaughtered and butchered. As a drink they have mead that comes from the udder of the Heidrun goat. Therefore, they enjoy an endless supply of exceptionally fine food and drink. In addition, they are served by the beautiful Valkyries.
But the einherjar will not live this enchanted life forever. The battle-hardened residents of Valhalla are there by the will of Odin, who has brought them together for the perfectly selfish purpose of coming to his aid in his fated fight against the wolf Fenrir during Ragnarok, a battle in which Odin and the einherjar are doomed to perish.
How To Enter Valhalla?
The only Old Norse source that provides a direct statement about how people get their pass into Valhalla is the Prose Edda of Snorri Sturluson, a 13th-century Icelandic scholar. According to this author, those who die in battle are taken to Valhalla, while those who die of disease or old age are found in Hel, the underworld.
This becomes clear when we take a look at Valhalla’s ranks, predominantly filled with elite warriors, especially heroes and rulers. And indeed, when Old Norse sources mention particular people residing in Valhalla, they almost invariably fit that description, along with elite practitioners of other roles that a Viking Age chieftain’s hall would have contained, like the poet Bragi .
Where Is Valhalla located?
The most famous description of Valhalla in Old Norse literature, that of Grímnismál , portrays it as being located in Asgard, the heavenly fortress of the gods.
However, other lines of evidence suggest that it was – at least sometimes – considered to be located underground, being a kind of more general underworld.
As we have noted before, the continuous battle that takes place in Valhalla is one of the defining characteristics of the place. The Danish medieval historian Saxo Grammaticus describes the hero Hadding as discovering such a place in the underworld. Furthermore, the very name Valhöll , the ‘hall of the fallen’, seems clearly related to the name Valhallr , the ‘rock of the fallen’, a title given to certain rocks and hills where the dead were thought to dwell in southern Europe. Sweden – and one of the greatest historical centers of the cult of Odin.
So where was Valhalla located? It depends on the source we consult. The Vikings evidently did not perceive any absolutely firm difference between Valhalla and the other halls of the dead.
Who Cannot Enter Valhalla?
As we have well mentioned above, those who did not have the “joy” of expiring their last breath in the heat of battle, ended up in Hel , the underworld in charge of the goddess Hela , daughter of Loki . However, there were some exceptions to this.
For example, those virtuous in life who died naturally also went to heaven, but not to Valhalla, but to Vingólf (another of the abodes of the gods). Likewise, those who drowned in the sea could not be received by Hela, since they belonged to the goddess Rán —that is, only those who died on land entered Hel.
Noblewomen also did not go to Hela, as they were taken in by Freyja after her death, while maidens dwelled in the halls of the seer goddess Gefjun.
How hellish was Hel?
While going to Valhalla seems like a worthy reward for the Viking warrior, how bad was the most common alternative? Did it have any similarity with the Christian hell, which —in English— is pronounced the same?
To answer this, let’s first review the etymology. The names Hel and Hell come from the same root in the Proto-Germanic language, which is an ancestor of both Old Norse and—via Old English—Modern English.
Contemporary scholars have reconstructed that common root as haljo (‘ hidden place’), and words derived from haljo seem to have been used to denote the underworld in virtually all Germanic languages.
Modern English speakers call the Christian concept of a land of damnation Hell because the concept was called hel or helle in Old English. Presumably, hel/helle referred to the same type of pagan Germanic underworld as the Norse Hel, and Christian missionaries to the Anglo-Saxons used the closest word they could find in Old English to refer to Satan’s realm.
But aside from the fact that Hel and Hell are both underground realms of the dead—and here’s the answer—the two concepts have nothing in common. Norse sources make it clear that the place is not any kind of reward for morality, conduct or belief, nor is it a punishment for immoral conduct or ungodly belief.
Also, while the underworld is not often described in the sources, when it is, it is usually expressed in neutral or even positive terms. It is presented as a place where the dead somehow live—and sometimes as a land of amazingly abundant life on the other side of death. The deceased in Hel spend their time doing the same kinds of things that the men and women of the Viking Age did: eating, drinking, fighting, sleeping, etc. It was not so much a place of eternal bliss or torment, but rather a continuation of life in another place or plane of existence.
Taking the above into account, it obviously doesn’t sound as much fun as going to Valhalla and then witnessing the end of the world first hand.
- The Poetic Edda. Grímnismál .
- Turville-Petre, EOG 1964. Myth and Religion of the North: The Religion of Ancient Scandinavia .
- Ellis, Hilda Roderick. 1968. The Road to Hel: A Study of the Conception of the Dead in Old Norse Literature .
- Simek, Rudolf. 1993. Dictionary of Northern Mythology .
- Orell, Vladimir. 2003. A Handbook of Germanic Etymology .
- McCoy, Daniel. 2017. Hel (The Underworld) .
- HistoryExtra. 2020. Valhalla: fighting and feasting in the Viking warrior afterlife .
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