By Jonny Lupsha, Wondrium Staff Writer
Dying in battle or dying otherwise separated the two Norse afterlives. One was for feasting and awaiting the world’s end while the other was boring and shadowy. This week on Wondrium Shorts, unveil the posthumous Norse.
The Christian afterlife is split into Heaven and Hell—eternal paradise and eternal torment, roughly speaking—so it can be easy to conflate them with the Norse afterlife of Valhalla and Hel. However, despite being based in the same root word as the contemporary “hell,” the Norse version of Hel was simply a “shadowy” and very unexciting place for those who died outside of battle, rather than a cavernous land of pain and torture. Valhalla was where the real party was.
In his video series Norse Mythology, Dr. Jackson Crawford, Resident Scholar at the University of Colorado Boulder’s Center of the American West, outlines the neat dichotomy of the Norse afterlife.
A Cold Day in Hel
“Our written sources speak of the realm of Hel as being vaguely beneath the living, but also sometimes northward from the living,” Dr. Crawford said. “To this day, ‘go north and down’ is an unpleasant thing to say to someone in Scandinavia. The association with the underground is readily understandable, because of the grave.”
Meanwhile, the association with the north is likely due to more inhospitable conditions that one encounters as they travel northward in Scandinavia. In this sense, Dr. Crawford said, some of the bleak lands within the Arctic Circle may be better suited for the dead than the living. Furthermore, Hel is associated with Niflheim, a northern and watery realm that predated Earth’s creation.
So, at least, Hel isn’t hot.
The Poetic Edda, a collection of Norse poems, describes Hel as being a place of large homes and farms ruled by a being of the same name.
“Hel is half blue and half flesh-colored,” Dr. Crawford said. “The half of her that is blue presumably looks dead, as dead bodies (and the walking dead) are said to be blue in the sagas. We read of an ‘again-walker’ or zombie in The Saga of Grettir; this saga says that the zombie was, quote, ‘dead, and blue as Hel, but thick as a steer.'”
Awaited in Valhalla
The poet Snorri provides the visual depiction of Hel. He also writes that men killed in battle are sent to the far better afterlife of Valhalla, a majestic hall ruled over by Odin. In Valhalla, slain warriors await Odin’s doomed fight against the “enemies of order” in the battle known as Ragnarok. There, these warriors are associated with Norse gods in the gods’ own realm.
However, this classic depiction of Valhalla is complicated by other surviving literature and culture.
“Like Hades in the Homeric poems, or Sheol in the Old Testament, Hel seems originally to have been the destiny for all the dead, or at least a term that covered all the afterlives,” Dr. Crawford said. “By contrast, the term ‘Valhalla’ does not even originally look like it meant an afterlife. It is likely that this picture [of Valhalla for the men who die in battle] is a late one, favored at the end of the Viking Age in Iceland and other western parts of Scandinavia.”
With conflicting poetic and historical descriptions of Hel, Valhalla, and even the grave itself, the Norse afterlife remains muddled.