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The Viking Belief in the Afterlife.
The Vikings firmly believed that their actions in life would lead to rewards in their afterlife. Many a Viking warrior would strive to ensure that they would rest in Valhalla until the time of Ragnorak. As mentioned in our previous video. Valhalla, The Viking Warrior's Heaven, Valhalla offered the warriors of the Viking Age a paradise that was filled with fighting, feasting and drinking.
But not everyone who lived in the Viking Age was a fearsome warrior who died a heroic death upon distant fields of battle. Most people in the Viking Age died in a varied manner of inglorious deaths. Those who were slaughtered without a weapon in their hand, or in childbirth, or through disease had to have somewhere for their mortal souls to dwell.
Despite a few stories and sources saying that some followers resided with their favoured gods in their eternal halls. It appears from surviving literature of the era, that most of those who were not selected by Odin and the Valkyrie ended up in Helheim, the realm of the honoured dead.
Helheim was a realm that was cold, dour and infinite. In many ways, it is described as the polar opposite to the lands of the living. Some sources point that Helheim was broken off from one of the primordial realms of creation by Odin to house those who had passed into the next life. It was the cold and barren landscape of Nifleheim that gave Helheim its unappealing and gloomy environment.
Many describe Helheim as being a labyrinth of underground structures, chasms and crumbling dwellings. This may fit in with the idea that life continues after mortal remains have been put in the ground as many of their funeral rites used to favour this method of burial. It has been theorized that most warriors earned a cremation that ensured their spirit was swept up in the smoke and scorched air towards Valhalla. Whereas burials in the ground allowed the newly deceased souls to seep into the underworld. Many descriptions point to the light source of Helheim being moonlight as nighttime is often linked to death and an absence of life-giving light.
In the Viking world, the lands of the dead are ruled by the Goddess of Death, Hella. She is the daughter of Loki and she was taken from her original environment and placed as the custodian of the dead. Before she assumed this eternal role, Hel was thought to be a fairly attractive goddess who lacked her sibling's monstrous appearance. It is believed by some that Hela possessed raw beauty that rivalled that of Freya and Sif. Hel wanted to find a place for herself among the gods of Asgard but was prevented from doing so, due to her parents dubious and chaotic nature.
Once she took over the running of the lands of the dead, her monstrous lineage began to assert itself. This combined with the rot and despair in some parts of her new kingdom, made her appearance transition into something that matched the kingdom she now effectively ruled.
Many sources and tales speak of Hel's appearance as being grotesque or ghastly. Her eternal form is warped by the death and decay, that surrounds her. Those parts of her not affected are often described as beautiful. Some sources describe her as having a cobweb strewn appearance and being rancid like a corpse.
The figures of Satan and Hela are both powerful beings within their respective mythologies. But they only have their roles as guardians of the dead in common. Hela is not a figurehead for evil deeds and wickedness in the Old Norse tradition. Hella is a complex goddess with very real drives and complaints against her rivals.
In some instances, it has been suggested that Hella gives power to those who perform magics of a nefarious, cruel or wicked natureHella is not linked to influencing mortals to sin or transgress, she keeps her concerns into that of her allotted role. Whereas Satan is a rebellious figure who takes delight in wickedness and the corruption of Humankind.
Helheim was not like the Hell of Christian mythology, it was a place that housed all types of people. From royalty that had died of old age to murderers who had committed unspeakable crimes on their fellow man. Because of this, Helheim is split into very distinct areas that housed those who have lived their lives in a particular way.
Perhaps one of the worst places in Helheim is the area known as Nastrond. Nastrond means the Corpse Shore, so this alludes to a watery area where punishment was to be delivered to those who had committed one of the most taboo acts in the eyes of the gods. You would be sent to Nastrond if you were a murderer, an adulterer or an oath-breaker. The oathbreaker was seen as being one of the worst crimes imaginable. Many depictions of Nastrond from art belonging to later years shows that those who dwell there are submerged in the water.
In Nastrond, the serpent Nidhogg resides. In between chewing at the roots of Yggdrasil, the tree that connects all realms. Nidhogg finds time to devour the bodies of those that had been assigned to this gruesome place. The name Nidhogg can be loosely translated as 'malice striker' and many of those who are sent to Nastrond can be classed as villains by Viking Age morals. It is easy to see Nidhogg as a creature that takes pleasure in punishing the wicked.
It could be argued that Nidhogg should be equated with the Satan of Christian teachings rather than the goddess Hella?
The dead who dwell in Helheim will not spend an eternity in the lands of the dead. For come the time of Ragnorak, the dead will rise in Hel's army and march back towards the lands of the living for their final battle between the forces of Odin and those who wish to end his rule.
There are similarities between the Old Norse and Christian versions of the afterlife. Unfortunately, confusion occurs due to the use of Hell as the domain of the damned in the Christian afterlife. We owe the name of Hell as the Christian underworld due to the Anglo-Saxons believing that this word would easily convey the suffering of a Christian afterlife that sinners could look forward to.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
© 2021 Andrew Stewart