Death in Norse paganism
Death in ancient Norse times was associated with varying customs and beliefs. There were not only different manners of performing a Viking funeral, but there were also several notions of the soul and of where the dead went in their afterlife, such as Valhalla, Fólkvangr, Hel and Helgafjell.
There are at least two currently known interpretations of soul from accounts of ancient Norse belief. 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. There was also a "free soul" or "dream soul" that could only leave the body during moments of unconsciousness, ecstasy, trance and sleep. The conscious soul which comprised emotions and will was located in the body and it could only be released when the body was destroyed through decay or immolation. When the body had been broken down, the conscious soul could start its journey to the realm of the dead, possibly by using the free soul as an intermediary.
The grave goods had to be subjected to the same treatment as the body, if it were to accompany the dead person to the afterlife. If a person was 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.
It was common to burn the corpse and the grave offerings on a pyre, in which the temperature reached 1,400 degrees Celsius; much higher than modern crematorium furnaces attain. 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 was 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 that 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, i.e. 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. There is no logical connection 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 dreary subterranean abode ruled by its eponymous blue and black giantess Hel. The realm was a shore made of corpses called Náströnd within Hel. Her 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. There is reason to assume that the ideas of Hel are coloured by Christian influences which taught that there was 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, 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.
There is little information 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.
- 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
In early sources, there is an additional complex of beliefs that is connected with the afterlife: death could be described as an erotic embrace between the dead man and a lady who represents the afterlife. This lady was often Hel, but it could also be Rán who received those who died at sea. Rán's nine daughters are also depicted as erotic partners in death. There is good reason to believe that such erotic elements are not just skaldic playfulness, but authentic pagan notions, since they appear in the oldest known skaldic poems. In the 9th century poem Ynglingatal, there are several stanzas where the kings are said to be in "Hel's embrace". Several skaldic poems and sagas describe death in battle or on the sea with erotic terminology. The skald praises the brave sea warrior who fights in vain against the natural forces, but who finally has to give up, and then he enters Rán's bed or is embraced by her nine daughters.
Several of Gotland's image stones show scenes that allude to death and eroticism, and the stones are two to three metres tall phallic memorial stones in remembrance of the dead. The stones have richly decorated surfaces and they often have a certain motif in the upper field: a welcoming scene in the realm of the dead between a man and a lady. The lady offers a drinking horn to the man who arrives on Sleipnir. What makes it possible to connect the images to the literary sources is among other things the man's shape: he has a phallic shape. The scene may depict the deceased who is united with Hel or with Rán. It is primarily kings and chieftains who are portrayed with an erotic death, but also the death of a hero can be portrayed in the same way.
The connection between death and eroticism is probably ancient in Scandinavia, and to this testify numerous "white stones", great phallic stones that were raised on the barrows. The tradition goes back to the 5th century, and in total 40 such stones have been discovered, and mostly on Norway's south-western coast. It is possible that death required an extra portion of fertility and eroticism, but also that the living received life force from the dead. The thought may be that life and death have the same origin and if an individual died, the fertility and the future life of the clan would be ensured.
In Ibn Fadlan's eyewitness account of a Viking funeral, there is a description of a slave girl who was to be sacrificed and who had to undergo several sexual rites. When the chieftain had been put in the ship, she went from tent to tent where she visited warriors and traders. Every man told her that they did what they did for their love to the dead chieftain. Lastly, she entered a tent that had been raised on the ship, and in it six men had intercourse with her before she was strangled and stabbed. The sexual rites with the slave girl show that she was considered to be a vessel for the transmission of life force to the deceased chieftain.
- Gräslund 2000:11
- Steinsland & Meulengracht Sørensen 1998:84
- Steinsland & Meulengracht Sørensen 1998:85
- Gräslund 2000:12
- Steinsland & Meulengracht Sørensen 1998:86
- Steinsland & Meulengracht Sørensen 1998:87
- Steinsland & Meulengracht Sørensen 1998:90
- Steinsland & Meulengracht Sørensen 1998:91
- Steinsland & Meulengracht Sørensen 1998:92
- Thorpe (1907:21).
- Harrison & Svensson 2007:79
- Steinsland & Meulengracht Sørensen 1998:89
- Gräslund, B. (2000). "Gamla Uppsala During the Migration Period", in Myth, Might, and Man. Swedish National Heritage Board. ISBN 91-7209-190-8
- Harrison, D. & Svensson, K. (2007). Vikingaliv. Fälth & Hässler, Värnamo. ISBN 978-91-27-35725-9
- Steinsland, G. & Meulengracht Sørensen, P. (1998): Människor och Makter i Vikingarnas Värld. ISBN 91-7324-591-7
- Thorpe, Benjamin (Trans.) (1907). The Elder Edda of Saemund Sigfusson. Norrœna Society.