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Odinist beliefs about life after death by Osred

Most religions hold that individual life survives the death of the body. (Perhaps ancient
Judaism is unique in identifying sheol merely as the grave and discounting any future
life.)

Yet modern Christian theology is increasingly shying away from the concept of the soul,
largely due to increasing recognition that the idea owes more to Greek thinking than to
Biblical revelation.

It is appropriate that Christianity should begin to drop the concept of the soul. After all,
Christians have always been very confused about the idea of continuity from one life to
the next. Souls in the Christian heaven have usually been depicted as incorporeal spirits,
while those in the Christian hell have been described as undergoing bodily torments.

The Indo-European religious tradition, on the other hand, has highly developed concepts
of life after death. Being part of that tradition, our Odinist ancestors also had a far greater
understanding of the after-life than those who imposed their primitive Judeo-Christian
ideas on the rest of us.

The trouble is that we cannot be certain of exactly what our ancestors believed. Only a
few of our sacred texts have survived, and that small proportion was sifted by Christians.
Not a single one of our texts has come down to us without Christians having played a role
in its survival. Much has been lost altogether, and much has been mutilated and confused.
Unfortunately archaeology and folklore can only go a certain way in restoring the
original beliefs.

This confusion allows an otherwise admirable scholar, M.I. Steblin-Kamenskij, to claim
rather comically that in heathen belief: "After death, a man continued to exist either as a
disembodied soul (named and imagined in various ways), or – and this is found most
often – as a completely corporeal ‘living corpse'; and his abode was Óðinn's palace
Valholl, or Hel, the kingdom of the dead (it is not clear where it was situated) or inside a
mountain in which all his dead ancestors lived, or, if he had drowned, in the abode of Rán
the sea goddess, or simply in his grave, or finally in one of his descendants in whom he
continued to live."

It is possible to clear up much, although certainly not all, of this confusion.

The first step is to acknowledge that our ancestors believed in life after death. There may
be some apparent contradiction in surviving accounts of how this takes place, but with
one exception (to which we will return later) there is no evidence of a belief that personal
identity ceases with bodily death.
Second, if we examine the sagas, we find not a single instance of fear of death. The
warrior's last words are usually matter-of-fact and often laconic or grimly humorous. The
people of the sagas had no concept of spiritual extinction, or of an afterworld of sadistic
maltreatment similar to the Christian hell.

Before going on to consider Odinist concepts of the after-life, we need to pause briefly
and examine the Odinist doctrine of the soul. This is very unlike the simplistic "ghost-in-
the-machine" concept of pre-Cartesian Christianity.

Several words have survived that allow us to consider different aspects of how the soul
was perceived.

One of these terms is the Old English Æðm, usually glossed as "vapour, breath", but
which is related to the Sanskrit word ãtman – "breath of life", used in roughly the way we
say that a cat has nine lives.

Then there is Old English Fæcce, modern "fetch", meaning an apparition or double of a
living person. People are often said to meet their fetch at momentous stages of their lives,
or just before death. The fetch is clearly a semi-independent part of the soul, and has been
viewed as the embodiment of all that we have ever been.

Closely related to the soul are two words from Old Norse, Fylgja and Hamingja. Both
refer to aspects of human afterbirth, but both had separate spiritual meanings.

Even in modern Icelandic fylgja means "attendant spirit, guardian spirit". This is an
aspect of the soul that accompanies people throughout their lives. It can take the form of
a personal reserve of spiritual power, and can be used to attack one's enemies – as
happened to Gunnar of Hlíðarendi. Before the fight at Knafahólar he was attacked in his
dreams by a pack of wolves, the form taken by the fylgjur of his opponents.

Hamingja, which is also used in modern Icelandic, means "destiny, fortune, mana". We
have trouble with this word in modern English because we have largely forgotten its
original meaning. It can be seen as that aspect of the soul which commits us to the great
task in this life for which every individual is incarnated.

Then there is the Kynfylgja, a part of the soul that has been conferred by one's family or
ancestry. This word usually refers to family traits, but we get a sense of its earlier power
in the Morris/Magnússon translation of Volsunga Saga: "I wot, by my fore-knowledge,
and from the fetch of our kin [kynfylgju], that from this counsel will great evil fall on us
…"

The Odinist soul, then, was seen as having many parts, or aspects, or dimensions. (Any
reader who may have thought the earlier description of the Christian soul-concept as
"primitive" and "simplistic" could do well to meditate on the few aspects of the Odinist
soul touched on above.)
In life, as we have seen, different aspects of the soul did not have to be present in the
same space – and in some cases they couldn't be. There is no reason to assume this to be
otherwise in the after-life, either.

But now, having glanced at some dimensions of the soul, it is time to return to the list of
possible after-lives given by M.I. Steblin-Kamenskij and quoted above.

Much evidence survives of the belief that devotees of Odin who die heroic deaths will be
his guests in Valhalla. The death-song of Ragnar Lodbrók exults in this certainty. So, too,
does the poet of Eiríksmál .

In Ynglinga Saga it is further said that all those who are cremated with their possessions
after death will also go to Odin. This need not be a contradiction. Odin is the god of
warriors, but also of poets and intellectuals.

Is there room in Valhalla for women? The literary accounts hint at this idea, and
archaeology seems to confirm it. Many Viking-age women had splendid burials of the
sort associated with devotion to Odin, accompanied by rich grave goods. Several were
also admired poets.

Other honourable women who die become guests of the radiant goddess Freya. Even
suicides can expect to join her. For instance, when threatening to kill herself, Egil's
daughter said "I shall take no food until I sup with Freya".

It is also claimed in Grímnismál that half of the heroic slain also go to Freya. This
confuses academic scholars. Jens Peter Schødt tried to explain it by arguing that physical
death is linked with fertility under Freya's care, while Odin links death and intellectual
fruitfulness. This is only partly correct – "intellectual fruitfulness" has little bearing on
the after-life of the einherjar.

Another destination for some souls is hel, a place, or state, which is similar to the heathen
Greek Hades. The word hel is linked to the verb hylja , "to cover", and applies both to the
place and to its female guardian. According to Gylfaginning Hel was given "authority
over nine worlds, such that she has to administer board and lodging to those sent to her,
and that is those who die of sickness or old age". Elsewhere we are told that "sinners" are
also looked after by Hel.

There are many points of comparison between Hel and the Greek goddess of the
underworld, Persephone. Most significantly the story of the attempts to save Persephone
from her fate parallels the doomed quest to release from Hel her most illustrious guest,
Balder. Odin's son, the Shining God, will remain a guest of Hel until Ragnarok, after
which he will return to rule a rejuvenated world. Since Balder did not die of sickness or
old age, and was and is not a sinner, we have to assume that much information about the
northern Hades has either become garbled or has not survived.
Hel is not a terrible place. The Greek hero Achilles said he would rather be a lowly
person on earth than king in Hades. Times change. There are worse lives to be lived in
places like New York than after-lives in hel.

After-life within a burial mound is particularly associated with followers of the god Frey.
Frey is said to live in Alfheim, and the burial mounds on which some saga characters
confer with the dead are presumably portals to that world.

Living on in mountains, to which Steblin-Kamenskij referred, is linked to followers of
Thor. This is said to have been the case with Thorolf of Most. In Eyrbyggja Saga a
shepherd sees the sacred mountain Holyfell, behind Thor's Ness, gaping open. Within,
Thorolf was welcoming Thorstein and his crew with great rejoicing. We shouldn't be too
literal here. Mountains are associated with Jotunheim, where Thor does so much of his
work, and a local mountain might in certain circumstances allow us to glimpse those who
have found haven with their patron, Thor.

There is no uncontaminated evidence about what an after-life with Ran might involve.
The whole concept is suspiciously poetic. Only an unlikely archaeological discovery
could assist us here.

Nevertheless, even in the case of Ran, a clear pattern has emerged. The Odinist concept
of the after-life involves people either going to their patron god or else following a course
dictated by the hamingja part of their souls.

There are two exceptions to this pattern.

First, those who have not been committed to the after-life appropriately, or whose
hamingja has been thwarted, can return to haunt the living as harmful, powerful Draugar.
There are many examples of these in the surviving literature, together with tips on how to
deal with them. Sometimes draugar can even be endearing. In Eyrbyggja saga the
Hebridean woman Þórgunna comes back from the dead because a farming family refused
to prepare a meal for the people carrying her corpse to its resting place. She shamed them
by making the meal herself – in the nude, because her shroud hadn't been stitched up
properly.

The second exception is the idea of reincarnation. This is a constant across the Indo-
European religious spectrum, and the fact that it is only lightly reflected in the surviving
Odinist literature no doubt reflects the priorities of those Christians who chose to record
or preserve - or not to preserve - our ancestors' works.

Two out of the three Helgi poems of the Elder Edda refer to the reincarnation of both the
valkyries and their male lovers. Helgi and Sigrun, for example, are specifically said to
have lived on this earth more than once.

The Christian tyrant-king Olaf the Holy was descended from an earlier, much-loved
monarch of the same name. Flateyjarbók gives us a revealing impression of the
thoughtful, enquiring Odinist belief in reincarnation, and its contrast in Christian fear of
the concept:

Olaf's Odinist bodyguard once rode past the burial mound of the elder Olaf. One of the
bodyguards asked, "Tell me, lord … were you buried here?" Olaf replied that his soul
"has never had two bodies, it cannot have them, either now or on the Resurrection Day".
The Odinist persisted, saying that when Olaf had ridden by here in his previous life he
was meant to have said […]. The narrative resumes: "And the king was much moved, and
clapped spurs to his horse immediately, and fled from the place as swiftly as he might."

A few other examples of belief in individual reincarnation can be teased out of the
surviving literature, but there's little point. The entire Odinist cosmology involves great
cycles of time, with age succeeding age, and with the process beginning again after
Ragnarok. This dovetails well enough with the surviving Eastern versions of our original
Indo-European religion, and within this larger cosmology it is obvious that the fate of
some soul-complexes would be to be re-born.

Significantly, the aim of reincarnation in the eastern versions of our once-common faith
was to acquire enough wisdom to avoid the need to be re-born. Perhaps the most touching
– and telling – reference to this concept in the surviving Odinist literature is found in the
Poetic Edda , when Brynhild determines to be buried along with the dead Sigurd, and it is
said:

Delay her not longer from dying,
That born again she never may be.

Some gaps still remain in our knowledge of the Odinist after-life, but the apparent
confusion highlighted by academics has been largely dispelled. Generally speaking, the
self-aware parts of the souls of our illustrious dead go to spend time with their patron
gods and goddesses, or else with those gods and goddesses to whom they are destined. A
very few are thwarted in this aim and become, at least for a while, draugar. Some go to
hel, whose guardian perhaps releases them with Balder after Ragnarok. Some are doomed
to be reborn in this world, where lover will again find lover, and again suffer the
tribulations of mortal existence. Of these, some can hope, like Brynhild, "that born again
they never may be".

Even though an article of this length can only expound it in the starkest terms, the Odinist
view of the after-life is beautiful, consoling and innately moral. Small wonder that our
ancestors objected to exchanging it for the banal, immoral and intimidating heaven and
hell of Judeo-Christianity.