The Return of the Dead in Norse Mythology


By Jackson Crawford, University of Colorado, Boulder

There are hints scattered throughout the written sources of Norse mythos, Icelandic and otherwise, that everyone went to Hel after death in an earlier conception of the afterlife, and that the idea of Valhalla emerged later. Interestingly, there are also sources that are full of detailed anecdotes of the dead returning to the living world.

The dead often returned to the living world in Norse stories to communicate with their living kin. (Image: DanieleGay/Shutterstock)

Helgi’s Visit

In one of the Norse poems about the great warrior Helgi that are collected in the Poetic Edda, Helgi fell in battle and was laid in a grave mound in grand style. Helgi went to Valhalla—where we even see him in a brief vignette, ordering around a rival who is relegated to his servant there.

But in the evening, another servant—in the realm of the living—saw Helgi riding his horse back into his burial mound.

She stood in stunned wonder as she watched. “Is it Ragnarok?” she asked Helgi at last, “Or has leave been given to dead men to come home?”

“It is not Ragnarok,” said Helgi, “But yes, I have been given leave. Tell my wife to come to me.” Apparently this powerful dead man could return to the world of the living, but perhaps only to the portal from which he left it—his grave.

Helgi Meets His Wife

The servant hurried home and told Helgi’s wife Sigrun what she had seen and heard at the grave mound. Sigrun then came to the grave mound herself and entered it.

She observed that his body was covered in gore, blood, and frost, implying that his physical aspect must have been that of a corpse—not warm enough to thaw the chill of his grave mound.

Vikings in a battle
Warriors dying in battles went to Valhalla to take part in further combats. (Image: Drumdredd777/Shutterstock)

Sigrun also observed that his hands had enemies’ blood on them, implying that the combats in Valhalla were between fully physical beings, as we might otherwise expect from a conception of the afterlife that viewed the whole person as going there.

Helgi’s Return: A Privilege

The two of them slept together in his grave mound that night, but he reminded her that, “I must be west of Bifrost before the rooster wakes the men in Odin’s hall.” So he rode away back on that rainbow bridge to Asgard at dawn, and that next evening, Sigrun came again to his grave mound. But he never returned again.

Helgi was a high-ranking hero. It is possible that men like him were mythically conceived of as more likely to be allowed back into their grave mounds to communicate with living kin because of that distinction. But, clearly, Helgi and Sigrun’s story demonstrates that one could not expect to find even the most eminent dead dwelling in their graves at just any time.

The Fearsome Dead

Sigrun’s servant also warned the mourning widow, when she came back to the grave the second night, to be wary because:

All the dead

are more powerful

at night than they are

during bright day.

So even if he was a beloved husband, Helgi had joined the fearsome ranks of the dead, the not-quite-human. And like monsters from cultures the world over, his activities might have been easier for him at night.

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The Saga of Gunnar

Even in more realistic sagas, such as the celebrated proto-novel Njal’s Saga, we encounter so-called dead men in their graves in similar contexts—locked in their graves and wishing the living well, in distinction from the roaming, malicious “again-walkers” who were considered trolls.

In Njal’s Saga, the great hero Gunnar fell valorously in battle, vastly outnumbered by his foes, and was buried in a mound. But not long after the funeral, servants came in from working near the mound and reported to Gunnar’s mother that her son seemed cheerful in the mound—they could hear him talking inside it.

Gunnar’s Return from the Grave

The information was told around the neighborhood, and a friendly neighbor came to investigate. One evening the neighbor and Gunnar’s son were outdoors after sunset, by the south face of the mound, when the mound appeared to open before them in the moonlight. There seemed to be a light shining from within the grave mound as well.

The cheerful zombie of Gunnar then stepped out of the grave into the moonlight and belted out a poem, remembering his own courage in the battle that was his downfall and exhorting his living relatives to the same courage.

This encouraged Gunnar’s son to take vengeance for him, and the son rode home. There he found his father’s own spear and took hold of it, saying, “I intend to bring it to my father, so he’ll have it with him in Valhalla and carry it there in all the fighting.”

But before bringing the spear to his father Gunnar, his son was going to use it to avenge him of course.

Blurring Lines Between the Dead and Living World

It must be noticed that Gunnar is a natural candidate for an afterlife spent in Valhalla—a valorous warrior who fell in battle. And yet according to the internal logic of the saga, he seems either to return to his grave at night like Helgi or perhaps to wait in the grave temporarily, purgatory-like, before he can enter Valhalla.

Perhaps he cannot enter Valhalla until he is avenged? Or until he gets his spear back?

But notably, his son can find him in his grave, listen to him speak, and even bring him something—a spear that will pass from living to dead hands, and from the world of the living to the afterlife of Valhalla.

Common Questions about the Return of the Dead in Norse Mythology

Q: Were the dead able to return and move around freely?

The dead could return to the world of the living, but perhaps only to the portal from which they left it—their graves.

Q: What gave Helgi the privilege to return to the living world?

Helgi was a high-ranking hero. Possibly, men like him were allowed back into their grave mounds because of that distinction.

Q: Why did Gunnar return to the living world?

Gunnar stepped out of the grave to belt out a poem, remembering his own courage in the battle and exhorting his living relatives to the same courage.

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