The Vikings’ religion never contained any formal doctrines concerning what happens to someone when he or she dies. In the words of historian H.R. Ellis Davidson, “There is no consistent picture in Norse literary tradition of the fate of the dead,” and “to oversimplify the position would be to falsify it.” The rational order that people today often naively insist on finding in Viking portrayals of the dead simply isn’t there in the sources.
Nevertheless, the picture presented to us by archaeology and the Old Norse literary sources isn’t complete chaos. There are discernible patterns in the way the Norse conceived of death and the afterlife, even though those patterns don’t hold absolutely, and the details of what one source tells us are almost invariably contradicted by another source.
The Land(s) of the Dead
Spiritual parts of the dead were usually thought to end up in a spiritual otherworld of some sort or another (with some exceptions that we’ll explore below).
The most famous of these dwelling-places of the dead is undoubtedly Valhalla (Old Norse Valhöll, “the hall of the fallen”), the resplendent hall of the god Odin. Those chosen by Odin and his valkyries live there as celebrated heroes until they’re called upon to fight by Odin’s side in the doomed battle at Ragnarok, the downfall of the gods and the rest of the universe.
The goddess Freya is said to welcome some of the dead into her hall, Folkvang (Old Norse Fólkvangr, “the field of the people” or “the field of warriors”). Unfortunately, Folkvang is mentioned so sparsely in the sources that we today don’t have any idea what it was thought to be like.
But the afterlife world to which the dead are most commonly portrayed as going is Hel, a world beneath the ground presided over by a goddess who is also named Hel. In addition to this conception of a general underworld, people from particular families and localities are sometimes depicted as remaining together in a particular place close to where they lived while they were alive – underneath a specific mountain, for example.
And what do the dead do in Hel or the local variations thereof? They typically eat, drink, carouse, fight, sleep, practice magic, and generally do all of the things that living Viking Age men and women did.
The lines between these various abodes of the dead are quite blurry, and there’s no consistent picture of who decides where a particular person goes after death, or how the decision is made.
An oft-repeated line is that those who die in battle are thought to go to Valhalla, whereas those who die of other, more peaceful causes go to Hel. Leaving aside the fact that this excludes all of the other places to which the dead are thought to potentially go, this artificially tidy distinction was first made by Snorri Sturluson, a Christian historian writing in the thirteenth century – many generations after the pre-Christian Norse religion had ceased to be a living tradition.
Snorri is known for attempting to impose a systematization on his source material that isn’t present in his sources (many of which we, too, possess), and this seems to be another instance of that tendency. Snorri himself blatantly contradicts his distinction between Valhalla and Hel in the one substantial account of Hel he provides: the tale of the death of Baldur, Odin’s son, who is killed violently and is nevertheless borne to Hel. No other source makes this distinction – and several contradict it – which means that this snug way of differentiating between who ended up in Hel versus Valhalla is surely an invention of Snorri’s.
Not only is it ultimately impossible to establish a neat set of criteria for how the dead end up where they do – it’s also impossible to cleanly differentiate these places themselves from one another. For example, Valhalla is often depicted as a realm where distinguished warriors engage in a continuous battle, and just such a place is described, in important early sources, as being located beneath the ground – and, intriguingly, without the name “Valhalla” anywhere in the account. Furthermore, the very name Valhöll, “the hall of the fallen,” clearly seems 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 Sweden, one of the greatest historical centers of the worship of Odin.
So are we to conclude that Valhalla is simply one particular part of Hel, rather than an independent realm? Not so fast. It’s elsewhere described as being a part of Asgard, the celestial realm of the gods.
Some sources also speak of the dead being reborn in one of their descendants, although never in someone outside of their family line. Here as well, the sources are unclear as to how exactly this would happen, but oftentimes the dead person is reincarnated in someone who is named after him or her.
It’s sometimes impossible to distinguish between deceased human ancestors and elves in Old Norse literature, to the point that it wouldn’t be amiss to speak of a part of the dead human becoming an elf in some cases. One example of this comes from The Saga of Olaf the Holy, one of the first Christian kings of Norway. Olaf and a servant ride past the burial mound of the king’s ancestor and namesake, who is now called by the name of Óláfr Geirstaðaálfr – literally “Olaf, the Elf of Geirstad,” a title that clearly implies the currently elfin state of the king’s forefather. The same passage also insinuates that King Olaf is the reincarnation of the deceased Olaf, showing that the dead could be thought to have multiple fates simultaneously. There’s not necessarily a contradiction on this particular point, since such a scenario would be logically possible in the Norse view of the self having multiple spiritual parts.
No Reward or Punishment
Today, many people who believe in an afterlife think of it as a reward or punishment for one’s moral or ideological choices during life. The Norse held no such conception. The ideas of “salvation” and “damnation” were alien to their rather earthy worldview. Thus, people who search for a “Heaven” or “Hell” amongst the Norse dwelling-places of the dead are going to come up empty-handed. (The words “Hell” and “Hel” come from the same Germanic root, but the names and the subterranean location are the only things the two conceptions have in common.)
There is one late Old Norse poem that mentions a place of punishment after death: Nastrond (Old Norse Náströdr, “shore of corpses”). Its gate faces north, poison drips from its ceiling, and snakes coil on its floor. (Snorri cites this poem in his works, too.) But the poem in question (Völuspá) is rife with Christian influence. Given how anachronistic Nastrond is amongst the other Norse ideas of what happened to a person after death, it, too, surely derives from Christian depictions of Hell.
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 Davidson, Hilda Roderick Ellis. 1993. The Lost Beliefs of Northern Europe. p. 70.
 Ellis, Hilda Roderick. 1968. The Road to Hel: A Study of the Conception of the Dead in Old Norse Literature. p. 97.
 See, for example, the third chapter of Eyrbyggja Saga.
 Ellis, Hilda Roderick. 1968. The Road to Hel: A Study of the Conception of the Dead in Old Norse Literature. p. 84.
 Ibid. p. 85-86.
 Turville-Petre, E.O.G. 1964. Myth and Religion of the North: The Religion of Ancient Scandinavia. p. 55.
 Simek, Rudolf. 1993. Dictionary of Northern Mythology. Translated by Angela Hall. p. 347.
 The Poetic Edda. Grímnismál, stanza 4.
 Ellis, Hilda Roderick. 1968. The Road to Hel: A Study of the Conception of the Dead in Old Norse Literature. p. 138-147.
 Óláfs Saga Helga. In Flateyjarbók.
 “Hell” in the Online Etymology Dictionary. http://www.etymonline.com/index.php?term=hell&allowed_in_frame=0
 The Poetic Edda. Völuspá, stanza 38.
 Snorri Sturluson. The Prose Edda. Gylfaginning, chapter 51.
 See my discussion of this poem in the fourth chapter of my book The Viking Spirit.