Afterlife: Germanic Concepts

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The Old Norse accounts that supply most of the detailed information about pre-Christian Germanic religion picture several different kinds of afterlife. These can be simplified into two contrasting general concepts of life after death. In one view, the dead traveled to one of several halls depending upon how they died. In the other view, the dead remained very much on earth, either staying in their grave mound or else traveling out and disturbing their former neighborhood. In both understandings of the afterlife, how one died and the rituals surrounding death could determine how the dead person fared in the afterlife.

The Halls of the Dead

The largest and most complete mythological narratives discussing the afterlife are contained in the Prose Edda and the Poetic Edda. The Prose Edda was written by Snorri Sturluson (11791241), a politically involved Icelandic nobleman who lived roughly two centuries after the conversion of Iceland to Christianity. Snorri presents a logical and clear description of many Norse beliefs, but this well-ordered narrative most likely reflects the influence of Christian systematic theology. His sources, mainly the group of poems called the Poetic Edda, present a much more fractured and inconsistent view of the afterlife. Germanic paganism apparently allowed multiple and contradictory understandings of death.

As portrayed in the Prose Edda, the dead dwelt in various halls. The virtuous deceased went to Gimlé, called simply the best house; to Brimir, which featured a copious supply of ale; or to Sindri, which was made of red gold. The wicked went to an unnamed hall on Nástrandir (Corpse Beach), which was reserved for oath breakers and murderers and whose walls were made of snakes that spat their poison into the center of the house; or to Hvergelmir, the worst house of all, in which the serpent Níðhǫggr tormented the bodies of the dead.

The basic depictions of these halls derive from the Poetic Edda (Vǫlupsá, sts. 3739). In Vǫluspá, however, only the hall on Nástrandir is linked explicitly with the dead, and the halls of Sindri and Brimir (who are supernatural people, a dwarf and a giant respectively, and not just names) seem to be gathering stations for the races inimical to the Æsir gods rather than destinations for the dead. Similarly, Hvergelmir is elsewhere pictured as a spring under the roots of the world tree and not as a hall. Vǫlupsá does mention a hall on Gimlé, made of gold, that will house righteous rulers once the earth has been renewed after Ragnarǫk (the end of this world), and Vǫlupsá also notes that a monstrous wolf feeds on the flesh of the dead in Ironwood. While other accounts do not contain these named halls, a snake-filled hall does appear in the story by Saxo Grammaticus (c.11501204/1220) about a trip northward to a realm of the dead, and it therefore seems likely that a snake-filled hall was an image traditionally associated with death.

Another realm for the dead found in the Eddas is Hel. Unlike its modern cognate hell, Hel, while placed underground, was not viewed as a place of damnation, but rather as simply the realm of the dead, similar to the Hebrew she˒ol. Hel's connection with the halls mentioned above is unclear, and it may represent a separate and older view of the afterlife. Knowledge of Hel was certainly more widespread than any of the above halls, since it appears in stock phrases meaning "to die," such as fara til heljar, literally "travel to Hel." Hel was frequently personified in skaldic poetry, however, and Snorri pictured Hel as a goddess dwelling in Niflheimr (Misty Dwelling), a region consisting of nine underworlds. According to information unique to Snorri's account, it was those who died of sickness, old age, and famine who went to Hel.

A final abode for the dead prominent in the Eddas is Valhǫll, popularly known today as Valhalla. Valhǫll, in the Eddas as elsewhere, is portrayed as the hall of Óðinn (Odin), where certain selected warriors slain on the battlefield are taken. The hall is decorated with armor and features 540 doors, through each of which eight hundred warriors can pass at the same time. According to the poem Grímnismál, these chosen warriors, called einherjar, enjoy a merry life of feasting while they await the day when they shall go out to fight alongside Óðinn against the all-devouring wolf. According to Snorri and other sources, the warriors daily fight each other in order to practice for the upcoming final battle. The people who choose which of the slain will partake of this life of martial feasting differ depending on the source, and Óðinn, Freyja, and the valkyries are all mentioned in this connection.

Earthly Domicile

While Eddic mythology focuses on Valhǫll and the halls for the dead, other literary sources suggest that some dead remained on earth and did not travel to a separate realm. Norse sagas give several colorful accounts of draugar (sing. draugr ), which are revenants, or reanimated corpses. Grettis Saga, for example, tells of Glámr, an irreligious farmhand who was killed on Christmas Eve by an unidentified monster. Despite a makeshift burial, Glámr returned as a revenant and haunted the old farmstead by destroying property, animals, and men until the hero Grettir defeated the draugr in combat, decapitated the corpse, and burned the body. Only then did the haunting end, according to the narrative.

While draugar actively haunted this world, other corpses remained in their grave mounds and attacked only those who dared to enter them. The corpse of Kárr the Old only came to life within his howe, or burial mound, when Grettir attempted to remove the treasure buried there. A fight ensued, and Grettir, as usual, finally got the upper hand. The dead in the grave mounds are not always malevolent, however. When their graves are not violated, the dead are sometimes pictured as content in their howes; Gunnar is described as happily gazing at the full moon from his open howe in Njáls Saga. Several howe dwellers were in fact believed to be gods, and their cults involved sacrifices offered at the grave mound. Certain grave mounds themselves seem to have become holy as a result; there is mention of an Árhaugr (Plenty Howe) to which sacrifices were offered around Yule.

While some dead dwelt in grave mounds, some families believed that they would reside in a mountain after death. Eyrbyggja saga preserves an account of Þorsteinn Þorskabítr, who was welcomed into Helgafell (Holy Mountain) with much rejoicing and merrymaking when he died by drowning. Other accounts also stress the celebration that ensued when the recently deceased joined their kin in the mountains. One common thread between many of these accounts is the worship of Þórr (Thor), but it is unclear if such worship itself enabled the dead person to enter the mountain.

A final way in which the dead remained on earth is through rebirth. Accounts of rebirth are not very common, though some famous personages, such as King Olaf the Holy, were alleged to have been the reincarnations of other people. Some critics have argued that the widespread practice of naming children after recently deceased kinsmen indicates that belief in reincarnation was once common, but the surviving evidence is not conclusive.

Burial Rites

The Germanic peoples practiced both cremation and inhumation throughout their pre-Christian history. Cremation itself was generally completed by placing the ashes in an urn and burying the urn. Inhumed corpses are often found accompanied by grave goods such as armor, food, or even other corpses. The presence of grave goods is generally thought to indicate belief in an afterlife, since the goods seem designed to aid the individual's journey to or life in the next world. Other interpretations are, of course, possible. The modern Catholic custom of burying bodies with a rosary does not reflect contemporary belief that the corpse will use it for prayer, and sentimental or symbolic readings may be more accurate than literal interpretations of the archaeological evidence.

In thirteenth-century Christian accounts, however, the earlier pagans are described as believing that grave goods would help to secure a good life after death. According to Ynglingasaga, the Swedish cult of Óðinn held that the dead would bring to Valhǫll whatever treasures had been buried with them in the grave. The depiction of a ravenously hungry corpse in Egils saga einhenda ok Ásmundar further suggests that food offerings were indeed intended as provisions for the deceased. An extremely interesting and valuable account by Ahmed Ibn Fadlan (fl. 922 ce), an Arabic ambassador who spent time among the still-pagan Rus, who are thought to have been East Scandinavian traders, records that a chieftain's death rites included the sacrifice of a servant girl who would accompany him into the afterlife. A number of graves in Anglo-Saxon England in which a female corpse without grave goods has been placed over a male corpse with grave goods provides some evidence that Ibn Fadlan's account is rooted in reality and that such sacrifices were practiced across the Germanic world. In other literary narratives, it is the wife who performed this suttee-like sacrifice.

While grave goods thus helped the dead in the next life, cremation rituals could indicate how the deceased was actually received. In Ibn Fadlan's account, Viking informants explain that a quick-burning fire, driven by a stiff wind, indicated the favor of the gods and that the dead chieftain would enter paradise without delay. The strong wind presumably also carried the smoke further, and according to Snorri, the Swedes believed that the height of the smoke from a funeral pyre indicated how much honor the dead person would receive in the realm of the dead. The closing lines of Beowulf likewise note that "Heaven swallowed the smoke" rising from the hero's pyre.

The most famous cremations are certainly those in which the corpse was sent out to sea in a burning boat. No archaeological remains exist that can confirm this literary tradition, but several ship burials have been found in which the corpse was placed in a ship along with grave goods, with the entire ship then being buried. The very idea of a ship implies a journey, and these ship burials may be the literal reinterpretation of what was earlier merely a metaphor. This image seems to have been well rooted among the Germanic peoples, since Iron Age graves in Gotland were sometimes enclosed by upright stones in the form of a ship, although ship burials themselves were not frequent until the sixth century.

Another ceremony that may have been intended to help the fate of the departed was the funeral feast that was held either immediately after interment or a few months later. These feasts could be important for the living as well as for the dead, since an heir took possession of his father's estates by drinking a draft called bragafull and then ascending to his father's chair. The living also recited poems at the feast, and Sonatorrek, by Egill Skallagrimsson, gives an idea of what these poems may have been like. In Sonatorrek, Egill laments the death of his son, but he also describes his son's reception by the gods. One purpose of such poems originally may have been to ensure the departed's safe arrival in the afterlife, since Hákonar Saga Góða depicts men giving speeches at the king's funeral in order to direct him to Valhǫll.

Transition to Christianity

The transition to Christianity is marked in the archaeological record by the decline of cremation burials, a decrease in the number of grave goods, and an increase in Christian jewelry, such as crosses, with a concomitant decrease in pagan amulets, such as Þórr 's hammers. Many non-Christian beliefs lingered on, however; one example is revenants, though such creatures were now fitted into a Christian cosmography and were often viewed as returning temporarily from purgatory to this world. A major change must have been the distinction made between body and *saiwalō, the proto-Germanic word from which Modern English soul derives. Whereas pre-Christian sources do not picture any clear division between the body and the animating principle at death, Christian teaching held that the body and soul were separated, though they would rejoin at the Last Judgment. Despite this difference, the missionaries' acceptance of *saiwalō and their decision not to use the Latin anima as a loanword suggests that the Germanic peoples had a concept of soul sufficiently close to the Christian, though this soul does not seem to have played a distinct part in pagan conceptions of the afterlife. Interestingly, *saiwalō did not survive into Old Norse, and the missionaries chose to use sála, borrowed from West Germanic, in lieu of any native Norse term. This absence highlights the differences between the Norse and other Germanic cultures and indicates how careful one must be in stretching the Norse literary evidence about the afterlife to cover all the Germanic peoples.

See Also

Eddas; Germanic Religion, overview article; Óðinn; Snorri Sturluson; Valhǫll; Valkyries.


An excellent survey of the Norse material is Hilda Roderick Ellis Davidson, The Road to Hel: A Study of the Conception of the Dead in Old Norse Literature (Cambridge, U.K., 1943), although the critical comment is now out of date. Gabriel Turville-Petre has written several good introductions to Scandinavian religion, including Myth and Religion of the North: The Religion of Ancient Scandinavia (New York, 1964), and David Wilson explores Anglo-Saxon cultic practice in Anglo-Saxon Paganism (London, 1992). Those with a knowledge of German, however, will still want to consult Jan de Vries, Altgermanische Religionsgeschichte, 2 vols., 2d ed., (Berlin, 19561957). John Lindow's Scandinavian Mythology: An Annotated Bibliography (New York, 1988) is a good starting place for more specific research.

Archaeological aspects of death are investigated by Sam Lucy, The Anglo-Saxon Way of Death: Burial Rites in Early England (Stroud, U.K., 2000), while Erik Nylén and Jan Peder Lamm have produced a glossy introduction to the Gotland stones, Stones, Ships, and Symbols: The Picture Stones of Gotland from the Viking Age and Before (Stockholm, 1988 [Swedish, Bildstenar, 1978]). A good introduction to the important ship burial at Sutton Hoo can be found in Rupert Bruce-Mitford, The Sutton Hoo Ship Burial (3 vols., London, 19751983).

Lawrence P. Morris (2005)

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Afterlife: Germanic Concepts

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