It is a common scene in film and television: as a Viking warrior dies, they desperately clutch for their sword or axe so that they perish ‘in battle’ and make it to Valhalla – the Norse god Odin’s magnificent hall in Asgard.
In Valhalla, these slain warriors would continue fighting, spending their days honing their combat skills. In the evening their wounds would heal – and those who had been ‘killed’ during the day would come back to life.
The nights were spent drinking the finest mead and feasting on the meat of Sæhrímnir the boar – who also came back to life, every morning, to be slaughtered anew. They would be served by the Valkyries, the same female figures who were believed to bring fallen Vikings to Odin’s hall.
But this afterlife of fighting and feasting was not without purpose – and it wasn’t for everyone. Here, Carolyne Larrington, fellow in medieval English and professor of Medieval European Literature at St John’s College, Oxford, explains four tenets of the Viking view of the afterlife. Larrington was speaking to HistoryExtra content director David Musgrove for an episode of the HistoryExtra podcast about Norse gods, which will air in January 2021.
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The Vikings believed Odin created Valhalla to prepare for Ragnarök
According to Viking legend, Valhalla was not a place of eternal rest, but training for the pre-ordained end of the worlds, when the Sun will darken, the stars vanish, the Earth sinks into the sea, and a great battle will take place between the gods, giants and beasts – Ragnarök.
“One of the things that Odin is most obsessed with consistently across the myths is finding out what’s going to happen at the end of the world, when the giants finally attack and Ragnarök comes,” says Larrington.
“Although Odin kind of knows that the gods are going to lose, he always seems to be searching for something that might falsify that information.”
It’s in this hope, Larrington says of the legend, that Odin builds Valhalla – a huge hall with 540 doors where all of the human heroic dead come together and practise for the great battle by fighting one another, again and again.
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Not all Vikings went to Valhalla
Vikings believed they could reach Valhalla if they died in battle – but what if they perished in some other way? Or what if they weren’t a warrior at all?
It was thought that, “if you were a Viking woman, or died in bed of sickness, or if you died of old age, you were not going to Valhalla,” says Larrington. “You would go to the hall of Hel, which was not necessarily a pleasant place. It’s certainly not as much fun as spending all day fighting, and all night eating and drinking.
The different destinations “point to a very strong distinction, which was a genuine one, I think, in early Scandinavian culture between those who were warriors and those who weren’t.”
Viking Hel is not the same as the Christian Hell
In evidence of the legend, “Hel doesn’t seem to have torments – frogs and toads, and ice and fire, and all those kinds of punishments,” says Larrington. “The only real description we get of Hel is after the god Balder’s death. He is in the hall of Hel because he was not killed in battle, and a hero called Hermod is sent them to get him back again.
“Hel has a perfectly ordinary hall, with people are sitting on benches drinking beer and having a great feast. Hermod asks if they can have Balder back again and Hel [the goddess who presides over the realm of the same name] says they can – under certain conditions.”
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“We have references to talking about Valhalla as a place that Vikings are going to go to if they fight bravely and die, and it seems to be a sort of aspiration,” says Larrington.
“We have one saga, for example, in which there are two heroes on an island, and they realise that a group of berserkers have turned up. Now, to be fair, these two warriors had invited the berserkers to come for a big battle. But when they catch sight of them, one says to the other, ‘I think tonight we are going to be Odin’s guests in Valhalla’ – and the one who says that is the one who dies.
“There is also one poem in particular in which a Norwegian king has fallen in battle, and he is depicted in the poem as entering Valhalla, and the Valkyries come to meet him.
“But the king is clearly really annoyed about being in Valhalla, because he’d much rather be alive and on the throne of Norway than having died – however heroically.”
Carolyne Larrington is Official Fellow in medieval English and Professor of Medieval European Literature at St John’s College, Oxford, and the author of The Norse Myths: A Guide to the Gods and Heroes (Thames & Hudson, 2017).
You can hear more from Professor Larrington on an episode of the HistoryExtra podcast about Norse myths that will be released in January 2021. Until then, why not explore our favourite podcasts of 2020?
This content was first published by HistoryExtra in 2020