Valhalla

“Walhall” by Emil Doepler (c. 1905)

Valhalla (pronounced “val-HALL-uh”; Old Norse Valhöll, “the hall of the fallen”) is the hall where the god Odin houses the dead whom he deems worthy of dwelling with him. This is not a reward for moral behavior or anything of the sort, however; most of those to whom he grants access to Valhalla are distinguished warriors whom he collects for the perfectly selfish purpose of having them come to his aid in his foredoomed struggle against the wolf Fenrir during Ragnarok.

Old Norse poems depict Valhalla as being thatched with shields and spears and guarded by wolves and eagles.[1][2][3] It’s a place of perpetual fighting, presumably with the intention of sharpening the skills of the warriors for their battle against Fenrir. After any scuffle in Valhalla, the warriors emerge healed to sit together around the hall’s table.[4]

Some writers speak of Valhalla as if it were a part of Asgard, but the Old Norse sources say no such thing. The closest thing to this notion that one can find in the sources comes from the Eddic poem Grímnismál, which states: “That land is hallowed/ Which I see lying/ Near gods and elves.”[5] The poem then lists many of the halls of the gods and offers terse descriptions of them, and Valhalla receives the most extensive consideration. But this “hallowed land” could be anywhere; it’s at least as likely, given the pantheistic and animistic character of pre-Christian Norse/Germanic religion, that this “hallowed land” refers to the cosmos as a whole rather than to Asgard alone. The Grímnismál, after all, goes on to describe much of the rest of the cosmos after describing the halls of the gods – and there’s no indication that the rest of the cosmos is any less a part of this “hallowed land.”

Where, then, is Valhalla located? The literary sources, as well as archaeological and place-name evidence, powerfully suggest that it’s part of the underworld, and hardly distinguishable from Helheim, the most general designation for the underworld.

As we’ve noted above, the poets speak of the continual battle that takes place in Valhalla as one of the place’s defining features. Just such a place is described, in other early sources, as being located beneath the ground.[6] Furthermore, the very name Valhöll, “the hall of the fallen,” is a late development that seems to have arisen out of the name Valhallr, “the rock of the fallen,” a title given to certain rocks and hills where the dead were perceived to dwell in southern Sweden, one of the greatest historical centers of Odin-worship.[7][8]

The only Old Norse text that makes a sure distinction between Valhalla and Helheim is the Prose Edda of Snorri Sturluson. Snorri, a thirteenth-century Christian scholar, claims that those who die in battle are taken to Valhalla, while those who die of sickness or old age find themselves in Helheim after their departure from the land of the living. Yet he blatantly contradicts this statement in the one extensive account of Helheim he provides – namely the tale of the death of Baldur, Odin’s own son, who was killed violently and was nevertheless borne to Hel. No other source makes this distinction – and several contradict it – which means that this distinction between Helheim and Valhalla is certainly an invention of Snorri’s.[9]

Evidently, the ancient northern Europeans perceived no absolutely firm difference between Valhalla and the other halls of the dead. Valhalla, therefore, can most accurately be thought of as a subset of the larger underworld. For a broader discussion of that underworld, see Death and the Afterlife.

If you’ve enjoyed this article and want to learn more about Norse mythology, I recommend picking up one of the books listed in this guide: The 10 Best Norse Mythology Books. And if you’re particularly interested in the worldview of the pre-Christian Norse and other Germanic peoples, you might want to take a look at my own book, The Love of Destiny: The Sacred and the Profane in Germanic Polytheism.

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References:

[1] The Poetic Edda. Grímnismál, verses 8-10.

[2] Þórbjörn Hornklofi. Hrafnsmál.

[3] Anonymous. Eiríksmál.

[4] The Poetic Edda. Vafþrúðnismál, verse 41.

[5] The Poetic Edda. Grímnismál, verse 4.

[6] Ellis, Hilda Roderick. 1968. The Road to Hel: A Study of the Conception of the Dead in Old Norse Literature. p. 85-86.

[7] Turville-Petre, E.O.G. 1964. Myth and Religion of the North: The Religion of Ancient Scandinavia. p. 55.

[8] Simek, Rudolf. 1993. Dictionary of Northern Mythology. Translated by Angela Hall. p. 347.

[9] Ellis, Hilda Roderick. 1968. The Road to Hel: A Study of the Conception of the Dead in Old Norse Literature. p. 84.