Death in Norse Paganism
Death in Norse paganism was associated with varying customs and beliefs. Not only could a Viking funeral be performed a number of ways, the idea of the soul was associated with various notions, as well as of where the dead went in their afterlife, such as Valhalla, Fólkvangr, Hel, and Helgafjell.
The Norse concept of the soul held that it was composed of several separate parts:
- the hamr (appearance, conceived of having a spiritual element that could be manipulated magically)
- the hugr (mind, emotions, will)
- the fylgja (attendant spirit)
- the hamingja (potentiality or fate)
The hamingja could leave the person during life, and be inherited by another member of the lineage after death. The fylgja could also travel away from the body during life. Through magical practices, such as spa or seidr, some aspect of the mind could leave the body during moments of unconsciousness, ecstasy, trance, or sleep.
The hugr was generally conceived of as leaving the body on death, potentially only after the body was fully destroyed through decay or immolation. When the body had been broken down, the soul could start its journey to the realm of the dead.
The last breath a person took was understood to be an evaporation of the life principle into a source of life that was primeval and common, and which was in the world of the gods, nature, and the universe.
The grave goods had to be subjected to the same treatment as the body, if they were to accompany the dead person to the afterlife. If a person were immolated, then the grave goods had to be burnt as well, and if the deceased was to be interred, the objects were interred together with him.
The usual grave for a thrall was probably not much more than a hole in the ground. He was probably buried in such a way as to ensure both that he did not return to haunt his masters and that he could be of use to his masters after they died. Slaves were sometimes sacrificed to be useful in the next life.
A free man was usually given weapons and equipment for riding. An artisan, such as a blacksmith, could receive his entire set of tools. Women were provided with their jewelry and often with tools for female and household activities. The most sumptuous Viking funeral discovered so far is the Oseberg ship burial, which was for a woman, obviously of elevated social status, who lived in the 9th century CE.
It was common to burn the corpse and the grave offerings on a pyre, in which the temperature reached 1,400 °C (1,670 K), which is significantly higher than used for modern crematorium furnaces (around 920 °C (1,190 K)). All that would remain was some incinerated fragments of metal and some animal and human bones. The pyre was constructed so that the pillar of smoke would be as massive as possible in order to elevate the deceased to the afterlife.
On the seventh day after the person had died, people celebrated the sjaund, or the funeral ale that the feast also was called since it involved a ritual drinking. The funeral ale was a way of socially demarcating the case of death. It was only after the funeral ale that the heirs could rightfully claim their inheritance. If the deceased were a widow or the master of the homestead, the rightful heir could assume the high seat and thereby mark the shift in authority.
The grave is often described as an abode for the dead, and it was also the location of cultic rites. The tradition of putting out food and beer on the tumulus has survived into modern times, in some parts of Scandinavia. This tradition is a remainder of the ancestor worship which was common during early Norse culture. If the dead were taken care of, they would in return protect the homestead and its people, and provide for its fertility.
The ancestor worship of ancient Scandinavians appears to contradict another idea, specifically that the deceased departed on a voyage to the realm of the dead, a realm which could be situated inside the mountain, on the other side of the sea, in the heavens, or in the underworld. No logical connection has been identified between these two complexes of ideas, and scholars do not have any answers to the question whether the dead would remain for some time in the grave and later depart for the realm of the dead, what the purpose of the grave goods was, or if the ship in the barrow was to transport the deceased to the realm of the dead.
Helgafjell, the “holy mountain”, was one idea of the afterlife which appears in West Norse sources. This mountain could be a mountain formation in the vicinity, and it was so sacred that people could not look in its direction without washing their face first. In the holy mountain, the members of the Norse clans would lead lives similar to the ones they had lived in the world of the living. Some psychic people could look into the mountain and what they saw was not intimidating, but instead it was a scene with a warm hearth, drinking, and talking.
This conception is in stark contrast to Hel’s realm, the subterranean abode ruled by its eponymous blue and black giantess Hel. Within or near Hel’s realm was Náströnd, described as a place of darkness and horror. Hel’s realm is separated from the world of the living by a rapid river across which leads the Gjallarbrú that the dead have to pass. The gates are heavy, and close behind those who pass it and will never return again. Hel is the final destination of those who do not die in battle, but of old age or disease. Scholars believe that the ideas of Hel influenced Early Medieval Christianity, which taught of a realm of punishment in contrast to paradise. The word Helviti, which still is the name of Hell in modern Scandinavian languages, means “Hel’s punishment”. It is not certain that the notion of Hel was very dark and dreary to pagan Scandinavians. In Baldrs draumar, we learn that Hel had decorated a lavish feasting table when she waited for Baldr to enter her halls. Still, it was probably not a very attractive destination, as the sagas tell of warriors who cut themselves with spears before dying in order to trick Hel into thinking that they had died heroic deaths in battle.
Valhalla is an afterlife destination where half of those who die in battle gather as einherjar, a retinue gathered for one sole purpose: to remain fit for battle in preparation for the last great battle, during Ragnarök. In opposition to Hel’s realm, which was a subterranean realm of the dead, it appears that Valhalla was located somewhere in the heavens. Odin’s kingdom was primarily an abode for men, and the women who live there are the valkyries who gather the fallen warriors on the battle field and bring them to Odin’s hall, where they pour mead for them.
Little information is known on where women went, but both Helgafjell and Hel’s realm must have been open for women, and the lavish gifts that could be bestowed on dead women show that they were understood to have an afterlife as well.
Fólkvangr is an afterlife field ruled over by the goddess Freyja, who chooses half of those who die in battle to reside with her there. According to the Poetic Edda poem Grímnismál:
- Fôlkvang is the ninth, there Freyia directs
- the sittings in the hall.
- She half the fallen chooses each day,
- but Odin th’ other half.
Death and sexual rites
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