Soul, Death, and Rebirth
The "soul" of our forebears was made up of many different elements, woven together to become a whole being. As Thorsson points out, "the strong body-soul split so heavily emphasized in christianity is missing in true soul-lore. We would rather talk of a body-soul-mind complex for a more complete understanding not only of what the parts are, but also how they relate to one another" (A Book of Troth, p. 90). As usual, accounts of these elements vary from place to place and time to time. In modern times, several folk have written clear and organized descriptions of the various parts of the soul and the ways in which they work together, though whether our forebears were so systematic is open to question. Some folk find these models extremely useful; some do not. Probably the most precise version of such a model is that drawn out by Edred Thorsson in A Book of Troth, which shows the different elements of the whole-self as overlapping, interwoven rings (p. 91).
Swain Wodening has thoroughly analyzed the soul-lore of the Anglo-Saxons, coming up with a system that is similar, though not identical, to Thorsson's. He uses the Saxon English term *ferth to describe all of the non-physical parts of the body-soul complex except for the fetch (see below). This part survives death, and is capable of seeing or traveling into the other worlds even when still in the living body. The ferth was to the forebears what "the self" is to modern psychologists. Contained within the soul are the memory, intellect, and emotions. The Old English knew these as the mind (OE mynd), high (OE hyge, ON hugr), and mood (OE mód). The mind can be broken down further into the gemynd (OE) or min (OE myne), and the orþanc (ur-thought). The min is the personal memories of deeds done in one's lifetime as well as knowledge and wisdom learned. The orþanc, on the other hand, is inborn thought, ancestral memory, and/or instinct. Some might call it the collective unconscious. It is tied to the fetch and one's ørlög, personal and clanic. It contains all the deeds, lessons, and errors of forebears and adopted forebears formerly linked to the soul's fetch for use by the individual. While the ørlög is the shilds (debts) and meeds (rewards) of past deeds waiting to be dispensed, the orþanc is the memory of the deeds themselves.
The high, like the mind, can also be broken down. The high is made of the angit (OE andget), sefa (OE), and wit. The angit is the five senses, that which collects information from the world around us. The angit is the "intelligence agency" of the ferth. While the angit collects knowledge, it is the sefa that uses this information. The sefa is the seat of reasoning and thought. However, the angit's and the sefa's reasoning are worthless without the wit. One could think of the angit as a computer keyboard, the sefa as a data processing program, and the wit as memory retrieval (with the mind being ROM).
While the mind and high are easy to explain, the mód and wode (OE wod - also modernized to wood or simply wod) are not. The mod is the seat of emotions, and alongside the wode and the will (OE willa), it is one of the most runic or dern (secret) parts of the soul. The mod governs all emotions from the simplest to the most complex. The mod is also linked to such qualities as boldness and are (honour). In Old English, it was combined with many words to express states of mind (i.e. deormodig - bold of mind), much as the word "heart" is used today (i.e. bold-hearted). Often mod was used in place of ferth or high, but one must realize it was used as we use the word "heart".
If the mod isn't complex enough, its brother aspect, the wode, is even more so. While the mod governs emotions such as bravery, the wode reigns over everything from ecstasy and madness to inspiration. Wode is the actor's adlib, the athlete's drive, the fury of the berserker, and the inspiration of the shope and gleeman. Its common thread is its unrelenting drive akin to obsession, and its ability to well up out of nowhere. Some compare it to psychologist Rollo May's daimonic which uncontrolled leads to madness, but used with wisdom can accomplish great deeds (note: even the Gothic christian Ulfila translated daimonizomenos and daimonistheis , "possessed by a daimon", as wods - KHG). The wode is Woden's domain, and to understand wode is to better understand the god. Strangely enough, wode was the gift of Willa, the god of the will, in the Prose Edda (and of Óðinn's brother Hoenir in Völuspá - KHG). Whereas the wode seems to well up inspiration within us seemingly from without, it is the will that brings self-determination from within. It is the will controlling the wode that allows us to fight negative ørlög or to flow with it. The will is the part of the ferth that allows us to bring thoughts from the high or inspiration from the wode into physical reality on Middenerd. Using the will one can call forth main from unseen places. And by using the will to harness the wode one may do most anything, for the will can call forth the wode instead of waiting for the wode to well up on its own.
Where the will fails, luck may prevail. Tied to the ghost is one's luck which in Old English was called speed (OE spæd), craft (OE cræft), main (OE mægen), thracu (OE), and might (OE miht). Strength and thew were sometimes used occasionally. Speed or main is the luck or power of the individual which determines the chances of success in any undertaking. It is the same as the Old Norse concept hamingja, as far as hamingja meaning luck and not the fetch faring hame. Speed is tied to eldorlog or ørlög, and as such is passed down family lines. Good deeds add to main while evil deeds take away main. The dispenser of main as regulated by one's ørlög is the fetch (ON fylgja, or "follower").
The Anglo-Saxons had no recorded word for fetch, although fæcce-mare (fetch-demon) appears in a 9th century document (it is possible that the scribe meant mere, a female horse). The first appearance of fetch as a written word outside of a compound was in the Scottish dialect, where the word wraith (ON vörðr - warder or guardian) also arose with a similar meaning. The fetch is an independent being attached to one's soul for life, so long as one does not grow too wicked. The fetch records all one's deeds in one's ørlög. The ørlög, also called elderlog and orlaw (or ur-law), is the record of all the deeds committed by all who have belonged to the fetch, and determines how much speed or main a person will receive. The fetch, ørlög, and speed are passed down family lines, even to adopted family members. The fetch may serve as a warder or guardian, though this aspect is usually left to ides and wælcyrge (see chapters on "Idises" and "Walkurja"). The fetch usually appears as an animal compatible to the personality of the individual it serves, or a member of the opposite sex. One usually will not see one's fetch outside of dreams until just before death, when it will lead the soul to its abode in the hereafter. One may send one's fetch forth to get knowledge from the other worlds...
The high, mind, mod, and speed are contained in the hame (OE hame, ON hamr), hide (OE hid), or shinehue (OE scínnhiw). The hame is the energy/matter form underlying the body, and contains the ferth after death or when faring forth. It is the hame that allows us to see ghosts. You might wish to think of it as the astral image or ectoplasm. It looks like the body its ferth belongs to, though powerful runesters, witches, wights, and gods can shape-shift theirs. It is sent with the ferth when faring forth from the body, leaving the athem behind to keep the body alive. The Old English knew this as shinelock (OE scínlác) or shinecraft (OE scincræft), the ability to send one's hame from the body to appear somewhere else. The hame is the skin of the soul; without it the ferth's energies would be lost among all else.
The link between body and soul is the athem (OE æþem), also called the blead (OE blæd), edwist (OE), and eldor (OE). The athem is the breath of life; a related term, ande (OE anda) is cognate to ON önd, one of the three gifts of the gods to humankind. The athem is the animating principle of the body, or in Latin the animus. It holds the ghost to the body, and this bond is needed to maintain normal life in Middenerd. In other philosophies and sedes (religions, customs), this could be seen as "the silver cord". Without it the soul would leave the body and move on to the abodes of Hell, Folkwang, or Walehall. In order for this bond to stay, the athem is fed with energies from the food we eat, the water we drink, and the air we breathe. Main is sent across the athem to the lich. This can be shown in the Old English manuscripts by the uses of athem and blead for breath, and edwist and eldor for physical nourishment. Upon death the athem dissolves, setting the ferth free to leave the lich forever. Should the athem fail to dissolve, the result could be the draugr (ON - OE gidrog) or walking dead of the sagas.
Native English words for the body are raw or lich (OE lic). During life the soul is contained in the lich which allows us to live in Middenerd. As such, one should see the lich and ferth as one great whole. Without the ferth the lich would be a vegetable, without the raw the soul would find it hard being in Middenerd. It is the lich that allows the ferth time to obtain wisdom in a friendly abode (Middenerd) before faring on to another.
Interestingly, the parts of the ferth-lich complex (minus the warders) number nine, mirroring in a way the nine worlds of Yggdrasil. However, such a comparison truly isn't feasible, but it leaves us something to ponder on (perhaps while browsing through Bosworth-Toller's Anglo-Saxon Dictionary or the Oxford English Dictionary).
In his Culture of the Teutons (vol. I, pp. 248-270), Vilhelm Grønbech undertakes, among other things, an analysis of the various words used by the Norse for parts of the soul. Some of these, particularly hugr and munr, are in common use among Ásatrúar today; others are more obscure. In Old Norse, the word hugr can mean thought, bravery, or general mood; one can be in good or ill hugr, for example. Thorsson uses the term hugr, or "hugh", specifically for the intellectual/rational part of the mind - the left hemisphere of the brain. However, the Norse often used the word to mean intuition; it is the hugr that passes knowledge gathered by various soul-parts to the consciousness. It can be used for the general psychic-emotional complex as well. As Grønbech says, "(Hugr) inspires a man's behavior, his actions and his speech are characterised according to whether they proceed out of whole hugr, bold hugr, or downcast hugr....when the hugr is uneasy,as when one can say with Gudrun, "Long have I hesitated, long were my hugrs divided within me", then life is not healthy. But when a man has followed the good counsel from the within, then there rises from his soul a shout of triumph, it is his hugr laughing in his breast" (I, p.250).
Munr can mean memory; it can also mean desire. After the model of Wodan's ravens, Huginn ("Thoughtful" or "Bold") and Muninn ("Mindful" or "Desirous"), true folk today often couple the hugr and munr as thought and memory/left-brain and right-brain/analytic intellect and creativity.
Aldr, "life-age", is seen as one's store of life, which is given at birth by the idises or norns (see "Idises"), but can be taken away or lessened by dishonourable deeds, or in fight: Grønbech mentions that "A man can hazard his aldr and lose it, he can take another man's aldr from him in battle. Aldr is the fjör (life) residing in the breast, which the sword can force its way in to bite" (I, p. 255). It determines both the quantity and the quality of life.
Fjör is the life itself, encompassing both consciousness and luck.
Önd, "life-breath", is Wodan's gift. It can also be used as a general word meaning "soul", or "awareness" (as opposed to the wild inspiration of wod). As the Flateyjarbók saga of "St. Óláfr" (quoted below) shows, this breath/awareness was one of the elements which could be reborn, and bore a specific individual character.
Móðr, like its Saxon cognate mód, means bravery. However, in Old Norse it is often used very specifically for a state of intensity in which one suddenly brings forth all one's innate powers. For instance, when fording the swollen river on his way to Geirröðr's dwelling, Þórr must take on his "Ásmóðr". When the great Wyrm Jörmungandr wakens at Ragnarök to thrash the seas, he takes on his "jötunmóðr", as does the etin who built the walls of the Ases' Garth when he realizes that the gods have tricked him and goes into a rage.
The hamingja is one's store of psychic power and "luck". It is possible to lend part of one's hamingja to other folk; hamingja, like aldr, speed, and other related elements, is made greater by deeds of honour and lessened by dishonour.
Might and main (or "main-strength"), máttr ok meginn, usually appear together. They speak of a blending of earthly strength and soul-strength - the exertion of all physical power together with total concentration and spiritual force. To our forebears, bodily might and soul-might could hardly be separated; one often reflected and perhaps even shaped the other. Meginn, in particular, was the strength that supported the soul, while máttr was more the strength of the muscles.
Ørlög, the "ur-law", is the root of being: it is the first layer of Wyrd which shapes all that follows. To be "without ørlög" is not to exist in any meaningful way; in Völuspá, the phrase is used of the logs on the beach before Óðinn, Hoenir, and Lóðurr make them into human beings. Ørlög is that which determines how all of life shall be shaped, from beginning to end: it is the that-which-is, the wyrd of the individual.
The hamr, or hide/hame, is, as Swain describes, the "astral body" underlying the physical shape. Shape-shifters, such as Egill's grandfather Kveld-Úlfr, are said to be hamrammr (hide-mighty) or eigi einhamr (not one-hided).
Together with the fylgja, or fetch, there are also other warding-wights tied to the soul, most particularly the sort which has previously been called the "valkyrja" but, as discussed in "Walkurjas", probably was not known as such by our forebears. In Völsunga saga, however, there is a description of Sigmundr's last battle in which the Völsung is bloody to the elbows, "but his spae-idises helped him so that he was not wounded". These women are clearly not walkurjas, as this is the battle in which Óðinn has decided that Sigmundr shall die; but they are both protective and, as the name "spae-idis" shows, wise and foresighted. This is the role which the thrice-reborn Sváva/Sigrún/Kára plays to the thrice-reborn Helgi, and perhaps the role to which Sigrdrífa has been demoted from her former station as walkurja: warder, rede-giver, and soul's shining bride or Higher Self, who also incorporates elements of the Jungian anima. Although there are no sources showing a manly warder, rede-giver, and soul's shining husband for women, if the anima/animus theory is indeed valid here, we may guess that women's Higher Selves may appear in manly shape, and be called "spae-alfs". These wights cannot be commanded or controlled: although they are part of the soul, they seem to have their own consciousness, and indeed perhaps to serve as a bridge between their humans' individual awarenesses and the specific god/ess to whom the individual's soul is closest.
Many families have a kin-fetch, who appears as a great woman clad in armour in both Hallfreðar saga and Víga-Glúms saga. This wight usually attends the head of the family until death, when she goes to the next family member whom she finds fitting. If that person is not willing to have her (as in Hallfreðar saga where Þórvaldr refuses), she will continue until she finds someone who is. The kin-fetch may probably be thought of as a specialized type of idis; H.R. Ellis cites several examples of such women warning their descendants or prophesying their deaths (Road to Hel, p. 131).
Another form of clan-soul is that which seems to be embodied in a sword. The most famous blade of this sort is the sword of the Völsungs, which Óðinn thrusts into the tree Barnstokkr (Bairn-Stock). When Sigmundr draws it forth, he is taking up his inheritance as Óðinn's great-great-grandson; when his posthumous son Sigurðr has the broken blade reforged, he is initiating himself fully into the clan of which he is the last survivor. A similar act is performed by Angantýr's posthumous daughter Hervör (Hervarar saga ok Heiðreks), when she claims the ancestral sword Týrfingr from her father's burial mound. As H.R. Ellis has discussed at some length in The Road to Hel, and Stephen Flowers in Sigurðr: Rebirth and Initiation, the belief in clan-soul is closely tied up with the Germanic beliefs about rebirth. The Óðinn-hero Starkaðr, for example, was born showing the marks on his body where Þórr had ripped off the extra arms of his grandfather, Starkáðr the giant. The younger Starkaðr, thus, had clearly inherited the elder one's hamr together with his name (and the continued enmity of Þórr). A similar occurence is seen in Þórðar saga hræðu, where the posthumous son of Þórðr is given his father's name, and has a scar on his left arm where his father had been wounded.
Luck, hamingja, aldr, and the related elements are also reborn in the family line. There is some question as to whether the individual consciousness is reborn (through inheritance or name-giving) or not: however, the Helgi poems seem to suggest that it can be, as Helgi's own spae-idis is reborn with him, and the spae-idis (or spae-alf), though a separate aspect of the soul, seems to be very closely bound to the individual awareness. Rebirth is also especially connected with name-giving: Ellis cites a number of examples in which a dying man asks another to be sure that a child is named after him. In Svarfdæla saga, Þórólfr specifically states that he will give all his luck to the child who bears his name. This is usually within the family line, and many families were actually characterized by the use of specific name-elements for all members (as with the Völsungs, Sigmundr, Sign or Sieglinde, and Sigurðr or Siegfried), which may have assured the oneness of the clan-soul. However, it did not have to be a blood relationship. None of the three Helgis are known to be related to one another, but the second (Hunding's-Bane) was named after the first (Hjörvarðsson), who in turn received his name only when full-grown, while sitting on a howe. Ellis also mentions that there seems to be a close connection between howe-burial/howe-sitting and rebirth.
The most famous prose description of the Norse belief in rebirth comes from Óláfs saga ins helga (Flateyjarbók). In this saga, it is told how the dead Óláfr Geirstaðaálfr comes to a man named Hrani (which is also the name by which Óðinn goes in Hrolfs saga kraka) in a dream, telling him to break into Óláfr's own howe, cut the head off the corpse, and take the sword, ring, and girdle from the mound. He is to put the girdle around the waist of the pregnant queen Ásta and tell her that if her child is a boy, he is to be named Óláfr, and he shall have the ring and sword. All of this duly happened - but as we know, Óláfr chose to convert to christianity, and became a tyrant to Norway rather than a hero. Later in his saga (chapter 106, titled "Óðinn came to King Óláfr with deception and wiles"), Óláfr is visited by Óðinn, who speaks to him of kings of old and asks which among them he would prefer to have been if he could choose. Óláfr says that he would not prefer to be any Heathen man, king or otherwise, though eventually he admits to a grudging liking for Hrólfr kráki. When he recognises Óðinn, he tries to hit the god with a prayer book. The next event in the chapter has Óláfr riding past the howe of Óláfr Geirstaðaálfr, where one of his followers asks him, '"Tell me, lord, if you were buried here." The king answered him, "My soul (önd) has never had two bodies and never will it have, neither now nor on the day of Resurrection. And if I said otherwise there would be no right troth in me." Then his follower said, "Men have said this, that you came to this stead before and you had spoken thus: 'Here we were and here we fare'." The king answered, "I have never said that and I shall never say that." And the king was greatly shaken in his thoughts (í hugnum) and spurred on his horse and flew most swiftly from that stead.' As H.R. Ellis comments, "Here the belief in rebirth seems to be clearly expressed, all the more convincingly because of the christian king's determined denial of it later on" (Road to Hel, p. 139). To this, it may be added that it seems clear that Óðinn was making an effort to make Óláfr aware of the source of his soul - to awaken his ur-thoughts, or inherited memory - and the king's rejection of the god is of a piece with his reaction at the howe of his predecessor.
It seems, then, that all the sundry aspects of the soul have the potential to be reborn, either separately or together. However, there are many things besides rebirth that can befall the soul. There are some folk who continue to live within the howe, as both the (usually) well-meaning alfs and the malign draugar (walking corpses) do. The mound-dead (or often undead) are particularly seen as still dwelling within their bodies in the grave; the Germanic link between body and soul is generally much stronger than that of Abrahamic religions. Ellis also cites several families who believed that all their kin would "die into" certain holy mountains, such as the clans of Þórólfr Mosturskeggi, Svanr the wizard, and the matriarch Auðr (pp. 87-89). The life in howe or hill does not seem too bad: Eyrbyggja saga describes how, after the drowning of Þórólfr's son Þórsteinn, the mountain opened and there was a great feast within, at which Þórsteinn was welcomed among his kinsmen. After Gunnarr of Hliðarend's death, he is seen lying in the mound with lights shining from within, and seems cheerful and in the best of spirits as he chants verses (Brennu-Njáls saga, ch. 78). The giving of grave-goods, food, and drink to the dead - continuously done from the earliest times through the end of the Viking Age - also strengthens the thought that they were thought to live in the howe. Often the atheling-dead were given company - a man's thrall, as seen in the double graves of Stengade and Lejre, or woman's maidservant, as in the Oseberg burial - but they did not always appreciate it. Landnamabók tells of how a man named Ásmundr is laid in his howe and a thrall slain to go with him, but he is later heard (or appears to his wife in a dream) complaining loudly of the lack of room, so that the mound has to be opened and the thrall removed.
However, there is also a strong belief that the soul fares between realms. Ellis links these paired beliefs with the paired practices of howe-burial and burning, a view supported by the account of ibn Fadlan, who claims that a Rus told him that they burn their bodies so that the dead could enter swiftly into "Paradise", and added that the wind which had sprung up to fan the recent ship-burning was sent by the dead man's "Lord" out of love, to take him away. Burning was certainly a very important practice to our forebears, as seen both in the legendary examples of Balder, Sigurðr and Brynhildr, Beowulf, and Sigurðr Hringr and in the archaeological record (for instance, the kings' bodies in the great mounds at Gamla Uppsala were burnt before burial). The importance of it becomes clearer when one thinks on how difficult the actual process of cremation was: a great deal of fuel, time, and effort is needed to char flesh from bones (Barber, Vampires, Burial, and Death, pp. 76-8), but our forebears seem to have thought burning the dead to be worth the trouble. Part of this practice surely stemmed from the fear of the walking dead, and it is only the bodies of draugar that are burned in the sagas of the Icelanders - though even their ashes can make trouble: according to Eyrbyggja saga, when Þórólfr Twist-Foot is burned, a cow licks the ashes up and from that gets a calf which grows up into a man-killing bull. However, the other sources mentioned show that burning could also be a rite of great respect. Snorri tells us in Ynglinga saga that the practice of cremation was introduced by Óðinn, and it is thus particularly thought to be associated with that god's cult. The popular idea of a "Viking ship-burial" where the burning ship is sent out on the waves actually only appears in the description of Baldr's funeral in the Prose Edda, but ibn Fadlan's account tells us that ship-burning was done on land. Our only known male Viking grave in France, a double cremation grave, also showed that the bodies had been burnt in the ship; both the boat and the grave goods were badly charred (Roesdahl and Wilson, From Viking to Crusader, p. 322). Some effort was often taken to make sure that the ship did not return from the world of the dead: the ship of the Oseberg grave was moored to a great stone, and a like practice is described in Gísla saga Súrssonar.
Death was sometimes seen as a literal journey: Bede's "Death-Song" refers to his passing as "that need-faring"; the Old Norse phrase for dead relatives was framgengina frænda (kin who have gone before), and the modern German word for "ancestors" is Vorfahren (Gundarsson, Teutonic Religion, ch. 8). However, faring between the worlds and howe-burial were not mutually exclusive, nor were faring between the worlds and rebirth. As spoken of below, many folk were put into the mound with those things they needed to reach the next world (ships, horses, wains). Helgi Hunding's-Bane offers us the rare example of someone who goes through all three stages: laid whole in the mound, he rides to Walhall, but comes back to his lich again for a last night with his living bride Sigrún; after that, he does not come back from Walhall while she lives, but the two are born again as Helgi Haddingjaskati and his beloved Kára. Gunnarr of Hliðarend (Brennu-Njáls saga) may also be one who fared between mound and God-Home: though he spoke verses from his mound, when his son Högni took his thrusting-spear with a mind for revenge, he said that he was bringing the weapon to his father so that Gunnarr might have it in Valhöll. It is also possible that some rocks or mountains such as the Helgafell of Eyrbyggja saga may have been thought of not only as halls in which the dead continued to dwell, in a sense, on this earth, but also as gateways to the worlds of the god/esses. This is hinted at in the Ynglinga saga description of how King Sveigðir, seeking Óðinn and Valhöll, entered into a dwarf's stone and was never seen again; Turville-Petre, indeed, suggests that "Valhöll" may have first derived, not from Val-höll ("Hall of the Slain"), but Val-hallr ("Rock of the Slain").
The most common means by which our forebears fared between the worlds after death was the ship: as spoken of in "The Nine Worlds: Their Shaping and Ends", the boundaries between the worlds are usually seen either as seas or as great rivers. The Eddic prose section Frá dauða Sinfjötla (Of Sinfjötli's Death), describes how Sigmundr carried his dead son's body until "he came to a long and narrow firth, and there was a little ship and a man in it. He offered Sigmundr passage over the firth. But when Sigmundr bore the lich out to the ship, then the boat was (fully) laden. The man said that Sigmundr should walk around the firth. The man shoved the boat off and disappeared". The ferryman is clearly Wodan, who also appears, in a lighter mood, as the ferryman between the worlds in Hárbarðsljóð.
The oldest sort of "ship-grave" in Scandinavia dates from the end of the Bronze Age/beginning of the Iron Age in Gotland, where the dead were put into graves marked out by upright stones in the outline of a ship. The greatest treasure-burials of the Migration and Viking ages are ship-burials: Sutton Hoo, the Vendel graves, the Oseberg and Gokstad burials - all these rulers were laid in their ships, just as written of in the literary sources. In the oldest of the Vendel graves, the only one in that group from the Vendel Period in which a full skeleton was found, the chieftain was "seated in full war-gear in the stern of his ship with his horse behind him" (Ellis, Road to Hel, p. 16) - showing not that he had been "laid to rest", but that he had been gotten ready for his journey. Ship-burials are also described in Gísla saga Súrssonar, Harðar saga, and Landnámabók. Many of the Gotlandic picture stones, from the fifth century through the tenth, show ship-farings; some of these may be the journeys of legendary heroes (such as Hammars I, which is often interpreted as showing a scene from the tale of Högni and Hildr), but others are clearly the voyages of the dead. The earliest of these is the Sanda stone (ca. 400-600 C.E.), which has a sunlike design above, two wyrms coiled about spheres enclosing eightfold swirls and a rough tree-like shape in the middle - and below, another dragon above a ship (Nýlen, Erik; Jan-Peder Lamm. Stones, Ships, and Symbols, p. 29). This is likely to show that the men on the ship are journeying over the waters to the Underworld. The more famous stones of Tjängvide II and Ardre VIII (ca. 700-800), appear together with scenes that have a figure who is likely to be the memorialized dead man riding Sleipnir to his welcome in Valhöll; it is suggested that "the Gotlanders who carved the stones thought of the road to Valhalla as the road home. First one had to travel over the wide seas to a distant coast where a horse awaited the dead, a horse from the great farm or lordly hall of the neighborhood, and then one was welcomed with a flowing horn of mead" (Stones, Ships, and Symbols, p. 70). The roots of this belief may stretch back to the Bronze Age; it is quite possible that some of the many ships of the rock-carving are the ships of the death-faring as well as of the fruitfulness-procession.
Our forebears also travelled between the worlds by horse or, less often, by wain. The horse is very often found in graves: sometimes this is clearly based only on its status as a valued possession (as when it appears in ship-graves such as the one from Vendel), and in Egils saga ok Ásmundar, the horse in the mound provides a nice meal for the voracious draugr Aran; but it is also quite possible that in many cases, the horse could have been seen as the means of bearing the dead person to the Otherworld. Certainly in the literature, it is the most usual kind of transport between the worlds. Hermóðr must borrow Wodan's horse Sleipnir to ride down to Hel in search of Balder; to reach Etin-Home and pass through the flames that ring Gerðr's hall, Skírnir needs Freyr's horse; and only Grani can pass the fire around Brynhildr (Völsunga saga). The way through the clouds to and from Walhall is one that is usually ridden. In Hákonarmál, the walkurjas Göndul and Skögul ride to fetch King Hákon, speaking to him where he lies dead "from the steed's back"; Skögul then mentions that "We two shall ride...to the green worlds of the gods" (st. 13). Helgakviða Hundingsbana II has the dead Helgi riding back from Valhöll to spend a last night with his living bride; when dawn comes, he says, "It is time for me to ride the reddening ways, let the fallow horse tread the flight-path; I must go westward over the wind-helm's bridge before Salgofnir wakes the sig-host" (st. 49). In Sturlunga saga, Gúðrún Gjúkadóttir (wife of Sigurðr the Völsung) rides from "Corpse-World" on a grey horse to tell of a coming disaster. Saxo describes Óðinn as wrapping Hadding in his cloak and carrying him away on his horse; Hadding looks down just once, and sees the ocean beneath him.
One of the Gotlandic picture stones, Lärbro Tängelgårda I, bears out this emphasis on the horse as the beast of death. The first scene shows a battle, in which the rider has fallen from his horse and lies dead. The second, Sune Lindqvist reads as a funeral: the living have turned their backs and walk away with swords pointed down as the horse bears the dead man away. This horse has two sets of crossed lines between its legs: Lindqvist suggests that the horse could be a dead one which has been propped up with these supports, but prefers the explanation that "The two crosses represent...a 'standing fence', that is, one of the notable, particularly strong cemetery-fences, working almost as a fortification, which for a long time have been usual in Gotland...In this case the horse would be alive; in agreement with the horses in the ceremonial burial processions of later times, (its head would be) covered...so that the eyes might not gaze upon the living when it bears the dead through the enclosure that separates the world of the dead from the world of the living" (Gotlands Bildsteine, I, p. 99). The belief in a horse bearing the dead by itself appears in later Norwegian folk-tales of the Black Death. There is even a tune, "Førnes Brown", based on a story in which there were so few people left in the town Møsstrånna that no one was left to walk with the churchyard horse, so the grave-diggers put snowshoes on its feet and sent it off by itself, and every time it came back to the cemetery, it had to go out by itself again to fetch another body (Kvideland & Sehmsdorf, p. 349). But one snowshoe came off and the horse limped; a limp which can be heard in the tune.
The story of a corpse-fetching horse is clearly not realistic (among other things, how did it know who had just died, and how did it get the body out of the house and onto the sleigh?); the horse that knows where to go to find the newly dead and the way to bear them is likely to go back to Heathen belief. Possibly because of this connection with the faring between the worlds, the horse is often thought of as a particular beast of death. A creature called the helhest (Hel-horse) appears in Scandinavian folklore; this is a three-legged horse which goes noisily about the church-yard and fetches the dead - limping like the horse of "Førnes Brown". Grimm cites a Danish story that a live horse was buried first in every new churchyard, and that its ghost became the helhest (Teutonic Mythology, II, p. 844). Wild Hunt is made up almost wholly of mounted ghosts, and the traditional Northern European hobby-horse often has a skull for a head. Hel herself sometimes rides on a three-legged white horse, or even appears as one herself; her title jódís, "horse-idis", has often been thought to speak of the relationship of the horse to the cult of the dead (though this is not universally accepted by academics); and when a man recovered from serious illness, it was said that he had given Death a bushel of oats (Karlsdóttir, "The Lady Death", p. 5; see also Grimm, II, pp. 844-45). This may also have been related to the folk practice of leaving the last sheaf for Wodan's horse, though that certainly had the purpose of encouraging fruitfulness as well. In any case, this horse-lore may explain why the horse is thought of as an especially holy beast. As the creature which can go most easily between the worlds, it could well bear the god/esses forth and/or transmit their wisdom into the Middle-Garth; as a sacrifice, it could best bear the wishes and needs of the folk to be heard in the Otherworld - and set in the grave, the horse could likewise bear the dead to God-Home or Hel-Home.
The usual picture of the Germanic afterlife, as given to us by Snorri in his Edda and taken up in popular belief, has battle-slain warriors faring up to Walhall, while everyone else sinks down to the cold and dreary realm of Hel. This seems to be some way from what has come down to us of the thoughts of our forebears: the belief in life in the mound or rock has already been spoken of at length; besides that, there are a number of godly halls to which folk may fare, even according to Snorri's own Edda in which he says that maidens go to Gefjon after death.
The widest realm of death, Hel-Home itself, was probably not thought of as all that bad. As Alice Karlsdóttir mentions, the style of poetic personification (with names such as Hunger for Hel's dish, Famine for her knife, Pit of Stumbling for her threshold, and Disease for her bed) is so late and so christian (it reminds one of Pilgrim's Progress or an old mediæval morality play like Everyman) that it seems almost certain to have been coloured by the christian philosophy and the need to have an antithesis to Valhalla (Heaven and Hel, get it?)...Besides Snorri's tidy little personifications, there are the descriptions from Baldrs draumar and Hermóðr's journey that show Hel's hall decorated, and equipped with mead to receive Baldr, differing little from the preparations one finds in Valhall.
In fact, the description of how Hel's benches are strewn with rings, the dais adorned fairly with gold, and the mead brewed with a shield set over the shining drink in preparation for Baldr's arrival is very similar to the Eiríksmál description of how Óðinn dreams that he bade "the benches to be strewn, the ale-cups to be washed, the valkyries to bear wine as if a prince came" in preparation for Eiríkr's arrival. In Walhall, Neckel lists several other likenesses between Walhall and Hel-Home: both have rivers which must be crossed over, similar to "the death-waters of the most various folks"; both have gates with ominous names (Walhall's Valgrindr - "gates of the slain"; Hel-Home's Helgrindr - "gates of Hel/Death" and Nágrindr - "corpse-gates"); and both have warded bridges which resound beneath the hero's passing (pp. 51 ff.). Neckel ends by suggesting that there was originally a single land of the dead, but that "Grímnismál...lifts the hellish territories up into heaven" (Walhall, p. 53); and it is quite likely that there was originally a general sense of the landscape of the world of the dead, which was later specialized into the halls of Hella and Wodan, the two deities who have most to do with death.
Even the distinction between battle-dead and other kinds of dead becomes suspicious when the sources are looked at carefully. Like Wodan and the Frowe, Hella (according to "Ynglingatal") also chooses her dead - that is probably to say, determines who shall die. To slay someone in battle can be to send them to guest with Óðinn, as mentioned several times in the Samsey section of Hervarar saga ok Heiðreks, or it can be to send them to Hel. Sinfjötli, who dies of poison, is taken to Walhall by Óðinn, as, according to Egill's poem Sonatorrek, are the sons of Egill Skalla-Grímsson - one of whom died of fever, the other by drowning. However, Sigurðr and Baldr are both weapon-slain, and they both fare to Hel-Home, as do many other edge-mown men (and "Eggmóinn", "edge-mown" - killed by the sword - is also a dwarf-name in the þulur, or poetic name-lists). Since Sigurðr is thought of as the greatest of heroes, the distinction between the dead of Walhall and Folkvangr and those of Hel also cannot be a matter of only the best going to the higher realms.
The most significant way in which Hel's realm does differ from Walhall is that it seems rather a quiet place where the dead rested after the labours of life. Terms for dying such as hvílask í helju ("to rest in Hel") and Saxo's placidae sedes ("quiet homes") support this. Perhaps this would seem like torture to an adventurer or professional warrior, but surely some would view the idea of a little peace and quiet as not necessarily a bad thing. There are also references in the myths and sagas that seem to indicate Hel occasionally took some of her more notable guests into her "embraces" (just what is Baldr doing down there, anyway?). Saxo mentions Baldr dreaming of the embraces of "Persephone", and in Fostbroeðra saga ch. 4, Þórgeirr warns Þórbrandr of a dream he has had foreboding that "Hel, your housewife (húsfreyja) shall lay you in her embrace".
In Walhall, however, as we know, the einherjar slay each other every day, then feast as friends together every night. The hall is well-spoken of in Grímnismál: its pillars are spears, its benches strewn with byrnies, and the roof is thatched with shields. A warg hangs before the west door, and an eagle swoops low above. Walhall has either five hundred forty doors (if the "hundred" of stanza 24 is a short base-ten hundred) or six hundred forty (if it is the long Germanic base-twelve hundred), out of each of which eight hundred (or nine hundred sixty) einherjar will fare at Ragnarök. On the hall stands a goat named Heiðrún, who bites at the World-Tree's leaves and fills the cauldron with mead from her udders; a stag called Eikþyrnir stands beside her, and shining drops from his horns fall down to Hvergelmir. The cook is called Andhrímnir ("the sooty one"; also an eagle-heiti), the kettle Eldhrímnir ("the fire-sooty"), and the boar whose flesh is seethed in it every day and who is whole in the evening again is Sæhrímnir ("sea-sooty"). The walkurjas bear ale to the einherjar there at the night's feasting, and may well be the ones to bring them back to life and make them whole again after the day's fighting.
As well as Walhall, the halls spoken of in the sources include Gefjon's (Snorri's Edda, spoken of above), the Frowe's (see "the Frowe"), and Thonar's. In Hárbarðsljóð 24, the old ferryman says that "Óðinn has the jarls who fall in fight, but Þórr has the kin of thralls", to which Þórr, rather miffed, replies, "You would divide the hosts of the gods unevenly, if you had much choice" (st. 25) - strongly suggesting that matters are not as Hárbarðr has stated them - certainly no one else, not even Loki, would dare suggest to Thonar's face that he was a patron of thralls! Since all the god/esses have their own halls, and their own beloved friends in Middle-Earth, it is generally believed in the Troth that those folk who do not stay in mound or rock fare to the dwelling of whichever deity is closest to their own souls.
Probably the most important single element in Germanic beliefs of the afterlife, however, was the oneness of the clan. In the Vita Wulframi's account of the attempted conversion of Radbod of Frisia, the king, at the edge of the baptismal font, asks what has become of his forebears. The christian convertor replies that they are surely in Hell, whereupon Radbod, appalled by the idea of being parted from his kin in this life or the hereafter, refuses baptism on the grounds that he could not do without the fellowship of all those who ruled the Frisians before him. In Scandinavian sources, we have not only Helgafell, but also Egill's statement in Sonatorrek 18 that his dead son has gone "to visit his kin", and Sigmundr's dying words in Völsunga saga, "I must now go to our kin who have gone before". As the whole splits into its parts after death, this is true in several ways. The consciousness seems to be that part which fares between the worlds to God-Home or Hel-Home, or else dwells in the family crag or howe (when enough other soul-elements, such as hamingja, hamr, might and main, and so forth stay with the body after death, then you get a draugr - this is most common in cases of sudden violent death, especially if the death had to do with magic or the undead; when the dead were magic-workers or berserks; or when the dead were strong, stubborn, and/or really obnoxious in life). Many of the other elements literally go "to join the kin", either by adding to the might of those living or by being reborn in the family line. Even when the dead are in the worlds beyond, they do not forsake the living clan, just as the living ever speak and share their feasts with the dead. Some have wondered how such a belief can fit in with the sundry halls and worlds to which folk fare after death: the answer may perhaps be found in the words of the walkurja Skögul, when she speaks of the "green worlds of the gods" in Hákonarmál. God-Home is clearly a very wide land indeed, which borders on (and even seems to take in parts of) many other realms, including Alf-Home, Etin-Home, the Middle-Garth, and Hel. There is no reason to think that the dead are bound to a single stead or world only: indeed, the examples of Helgi and Gunnarr show us that they are not. Rather, different folk may have favoured dwelling places, but all clan members, god/esses and humans, living and dead, come together in times of need and at the holy blessings of the year which bind us together.
The Heathen Norse (and other Germanic folks) did not put as much emphasis on the afterlife as the christians did, and do, which explains why their ideas on afterlife were so diverse and scattered. They also did not have the dread of death and punishment thereafter that later people, influenced by christianity, came to have. The portrayal of death as a demonic figure (whether Hella or Wodan, both demonized in this role by christianity) is very likely to have been a later development. But if we cannot accept death, we cannot accept life, for birth and death are a cycle repeated in all of nature. Though no one with any sense courts death, when she comes in her bright form, we need not fear to accept her embrace.
Grundy, Stephan, from "The Cult of Óðinn: God of Death?"
Alice Karlsdóttir, from "The Lady Death", in Idunna V, i, 18, Rhedmonth 1993 C.E. (note: many sections of this article are also reproduced under "Hella")
Swain Wodening, "The Anglo-Saxon Soul"