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A Heathen’s View of the Afterlife

A Heathen’s View of the Afterlife

The end of the year/beginning of this year saw the death of an in-law and got me thinking about the afterlife. The in-law in question was very Catholic and requested that they have a funeral and burial in the Catholic tradition. That meant a vigil (aka a wake), funeral mass, and then a ceremonial burial. It was odd to go through the entire process because I ended looking at it from a Heathen perspective.

Churches and Whatnot

First, the church. A Roman Catholic church which was heavily modernized. If you took away the crucifix on the stand and the portrait of Jesus, it looked like something you’d see as a pagan temple with trees and even a walk-in fountain. There were only chairs and no pews. In other words, it wasn’t what I experienced while growing up.

The sermons and eulogy had the typical “they’re with Jesus” bullshit. I expected that. But I saw the camaraderie among the church goers that made me think of how the church was looked at during Medieval times. You see, the Catholic church was not just a place of worship, but it was also a way for people to socialize the way they do now. They heard the latest church music, they saw the latest fashions, and yes, it gave them a way to connect with their neighbors. I saw that at the funeral and the luncheon that followed afterward where people brought what they made to share with us. So, I get why the Christian churches are popular. They provide a sense of community as well as a promise of an eternal life.

What About the Heathen Afterlife?

First, Heathens generally don’t (or shouldn’t) worry too much about the afterlife more than this life. In other words, our current life is what we’ve got to make our lives better or worse. It’s not that we don’t have an afterlife (we do), but it’s not really a big concern. Most of us will go to Helheim, which isn’t the traditional Christian Hell that is a place of eternal torment. No, it is a place of rest, basically. To the living, it might seem a dreary place of quietness, but to those spirits who have lived a tumultuous life, it is a place of rest. People do the same things they did in their life as in their death. In other words, it’s not really something to worry about.
Náströnd by Frølich

There is one exception to Helheim that is worth mentioning: Nástrǫnd (Corpse Shore). Nástrǫnd is a place near the river where the snake or dragon, Níðhöggr, chews on corpses of those who murdered, broke oaths, or committed adultery during their previous life. This is the punishment for those who are truly evil. The rest of us don’t have to worry about being a dragon’s dinner anytime soon, so unless you fall under those three evil behaviors, you’re pretty much safe.

But What About Valhalla?

People who die in battle are taken to either Freyja’s land, Fólkvangr, or Odin’s Hall, Valhalla. Freyja gets first pick of half the dead, and Odin gets what’s left. There is much conjecture on what actually happens in Fólkvangr, but we really don’t know if that’s a place where soldiers rest or whether they train for Ragnarok. Everyone has heard stories about the partying and reliving one’s battles in Valhalla. Some Heathens dispute this because of various writings about it, so I’m not going to go into that right now.

Other Places the Dead May Go

In Norse mythos, there are plenty of places where the dead may go in an afterlife. Here are a few.

Rán’s Hall

Those who died and are lost at sea go to the goddess Rán (goddess of the sea) and stay in her hall. I have no idea what goes on there, but for some reason, I have the whole Pirates of the Caribbean images of sailors that have been turned into half-fishes and whatnot.  Now, this may just be my imagination, but you’ve got to wonder what it would be like living your life under the waves.


This is a holy mountain where the dead reside. Those who have special abilities could look on the mountain and see the dead that inhabited it. Apparently it is a place for resting, a warm hearth, and good food and drink. People live the same way we do among the living, and appear to be very happy.

Asgard, Andlàngr, and Vídbláin

These three places within the Nine Worlds are three heavenly realms that reside in the world that Asgard sits. There are Nine Heavenly Realms within the world where Asgard sits where the spirits of the dead reside during and after Ragnarok.

Halls of Particular Gods

Lately, there’s been a lot of UPGs (Unverified Personal Gnosis) that certain people will go to different halls of the gods. There appears to be some precedence for this as Thor takes on two mortal children, Thialfi and Roskva, as bondservants after Thialfi lamed one of Thor’s goats. (I am certain there are other stories with humans serving the gods in their halls, but I digress.) There’s also the matter of the dead residing in Valhalla and Fólkvangr. I believe these UPGs are true, for the most part.  I’ve had a UPG with this as well. Certain people who serve certain gods are destined to dwell in their halls after death.

Also, there seems to be link between Alfar and the dead. Could Alfar (Elves) be the souls of humans who had died? In which case, Freyjr is lord of the dead as well.


In Germanic Heathenism, we have stories of those who have been reincarnated after death. Usually this occurs in family lines, rather than outside one’s lines.

The Soul in a Heathen Context

Heathens don’t look on the soul or spirit as a single entity, but rather a multiple entities. I’m not going to go over them at this point because this piece is long enough, but maybe, just maybe, I’ll write about the different parts of the soul later and were each piece actually goes.

If you enjoyed this post, consider becoming a patron of The Rational Heathen.  For about the cost of a Starbucks’ coffee a month, you can get information not on the blog as well as early releases of the post such as this one.  There are other levels of support as well, so feel free to check it out.  What’s more, you only pay for the posts you get.  So, if I don’t produce anything, you don’t owe anything.  It’s a great way to encourage me to write, and to produce really cool things.  Join up at Patreon and become The Rational Heathen’s patron!



Heaven, Hel, and Valhalla, or Going to Hel in a Handbasket (Part 2)

Heaven, Hel, and Valhalla, or Going to Hel in a Handbasket (Part 2)

For those of you that were waiting for this next piece, I am truly sorry I didn’t get it written up sooner. I picked up the typical cold that turned sinus infection, and was feeling pretty lousy.  So, nothing written up last week.  This week, ADHD kicked in and I’ve been researching how science believes life came into being on this rock.  Truly amazing and fascinating shit.  But that is a post for another day.  I promised I’d take up heathen beliefs about the afterlife.  So, here goes nothing.

The Road to Hel is Paved with Bad Writing

I honestly tried to read the book, The Road to Hel. I couldn’t, but not for the reasons you might think.  While reading it, my professional editor side kicked in and I was literally screaming over the writer’s style. Now, I realize that it was published in 1914 when it was in vogue to write in passive voice, but I threatened to burn my Kindle if I read any more.  I’ve hidden the matches and started reading it again, because I know I should if I’m going to discuss this topic cogently. Right now I am about a third of the way through, which probably makes me a Bad Heathen, but there you go.

I did cheat and went to the section about the soul because to a large degree this what I’m talking about. So, I pulled out what I could and tried to put it together in a more coherent form.

Burial Mounds and Ships

Okay, so someday I will finish the book.  Really, I will.  What I did pick up from what I read was that burying one with one’s goods was pretty common. I could see her conclusion that people apparently believed that at least part of you resided in the mound and lived underground.  The dead needed the grave goods to live well in the afterlife, presumably in the grave.

Well, okay, I can accept that view, I suppose.  However, our ancestors were just as smart as we are. They were amazingly observant when it came to the natural world. They’d know that the person who is dead rots and the grave goods either rot or get stolen. Not a surprise there. But like the person’s body, the physical substance was probably not as important as the essence of it. Otherwise, you’ve got a pretty nasty existence as a rotting corpse.

My guess — such as it is — that the belief was that the food and goods sustained the person on the trip to the afterlife.  After all, there is only a limited supply of food there. Given that the afterlife continues at least until Ragnarok, if not for an eternity, even a king would have not a lot to live off of.

Of course, the dead would want their favorite things, including a ship, armor, weapons, and other grave goods.  So, we can presume that those things are placed in the chamber for the dead to enjoy their wealth once they arrived at the place they will go.

Nowadays, we still do this even in the Christian burials.  When my mom, and then, my dad, died, my family picked their best clothes to wear to the afterlife. When my dad passed away, my sisters chose to leave one of my mom’s rings that my dad wore on his pinkie with him when he died.  They also left his wedding band on.  In Christian terms, it doesn’t go with you.  So, what was the purpose of all that? Even now, people choose to be buried with beloved pets who passed away, with certain items that they held dear, or at least in good clothes.  And some folks insist on certain burials over, let’s say, cremation or donating their bodies to science.  Seems pointless, if you believe that nothing except the soul travels forward.  All it does is show that people have enough money to waste on their burials.

Places the Dead Go

One of the interesting points that crops up in Heathenry is the concept that when we die, we can go to one of many places, including getting reincarnated.  I’ll talk about each place and what I think of it all.


Certainly the most well-known afterlife in Norse mythology is Valhalla, the hall of the slain. According to Snorri Sturluson, it’s Odin’s great hall where those who die in battle fight and feast while waiting for Ragnarok. That is, after Freyja gets first pick of the dead for Folksvangr. In recent times it has been looked on as a type of Norse heaven — and indeed, Snorri seems to treat it as such.  I suspect he took liberties of imposing a more or less Christian structure on it (Valhalla=Heaven; Helheim=Hell).  I suspect our ancestors looked at Valhalla differently.

I remember in college being told that only male warriors went to Valhalla, and everyone else went to Hel.  Totally incorrect, because there are other destinations. And I’m not sure women warriors would be excluded from Valhalla.  (My guess is that women warriors will go to Folksvangr. More about this later.

My thoughts about Valhalla are mixed.  Was it a place where the slain went?  Probably. Was is full of partying and fighting?  I have no clue. Was it heaven as we’ve come to know it? Probably not. It doesn’t even seem to play by its own rules in Snorri’s account of Balder’s death.  (I mean, he was killed by a weapon — do you really have to be on a battlefield?)  Balder dies a violent death and goes to Helheim, when you’d think he’d go back to Valhalla. I suspect there’s a lot of information missing here.


Folksvangr is Freyja’s hall.  Freyja gets first choice in the slain warriors and they rest in the “field of the people.” To what end? Does she lead them during Ragnarok? Do they indulge in a heaven-like afterlife?  Again, we know nothing. My instinct says that this is a place of rest until Ragnarok, and then Freyja leads them in the battle.  This is all a guess, which means I’m full of shit when speculating since I don’t have a UPG to even back this up. My belief is that women warriors do go to Folksvangr. 

Helheim and Nastrond

Helheim and Nastond are in Niflheim.  Niflheim is considered a cold and dreary place, which probably is the reason why Helheim is considered gloomy as well. But descriptions of Helheim, particularly when Baldur is received by Hel, doesn’t look so bad.


Probably where the majority of the dead go in the world of Niflheim is Helheim. Seeing as it was considered beneath the ground, we can assume that this is where most Norse believed they would go. If you compare Helheim and Hades (of the Greek/Roman beliefs), we can see a lot of correlation between the two worlds. Both are places of rest for the dead. Both are guarded by hounds. Both have rivers (one requires a ferry; the other we have a bridge.)  I suspect that the concepts are very old and preclude either of the religions.  No doubt we inherited those beliefs from an older paganism that may have existed before the migrations.

Helheim seems to be a place of rest for most of the dead. Despite the gloomy name, it appears to be a place where you are reunited with your loved ones and do the things that we normally do in our lives. Graves are considered gateways into this world. Those families that are in a general region may apparently haunt places near where they lived.


Unlike the Christian hell, most people in aren’t punished for their sins, with the exception of Nastrond. Like Tartarus of Greek and Roman Hades, it is a place of punishment for the worst criminals in Norse belief. Nastrond wasn’t only written in the Prose Edda, but also in the Poetic Edda, so we can’t necessarily blame Snorri for the similarity to the Christian hell. Nastrond is where Nidhoggr chews on the corpses of adulterers, oathbreakers, and murderers.

Ran’s Hall

Those who die on the sea are destined to stay with the goddess, Ran. She takes sailors down to her hall where they reside. I have read something that states that they can travel the oceans, just as they had while living, but I honestly haven’t done much research on this.

Hall of Particular Gods or Goddesses

I’m pretty sure that if a god or goddess lays claim on you, you can end up in their hall when you die, rather than Helheim. I’ve seen this mentioned more than once by Heathens, and my own UPG confirms it.


One of the interesting beliefs is the Heathen version of reincarnation. You can be sent back through your family lineage if someone names a child after you. That’s an interesting concept, which means you better be particularly nice to your kids and grandkids if you ever want to be alive again.

I have some general thoughts about this, but this post is huge, so I just better leave it for the next post. Suffice to say, I have had experience with reincarnated animals, which does give me hope.

So, Where Do We Go When We Die?

In my darker moods, the skeptic in me says we all go to be food for worms. But that’s just my agnosticism occasionally breaking through. Regardless of our beliefs, death is a big unknown. That’s where religion comes in — to bridge the gap.  As I’ve said in my last post, it’s not a democracy as to who goes where when we die.  If the Christians are right, there’s a heaven and hell.  If we’re right, we have many places we could go, but most people are likely to end up in Helheim with their families. We may be all right, or all wrong. Much of it is reliant on whether we have a soul, spirit, or something that can go on.

Which Brings Us to the Concept of the Soul

Apparently, our ancestors didn’t do the Christian thing and have one soul.  Which is good, because it explains a lot more than the Christian counterpart.  However, this is something I want to explore more in-depth, which means you’re probably going to get some heavy-hitting posts over the next few weeks.

If you enjoyed this post, consider becoming a patron of The Rational Heathen.  For about the cost of a Starbucks’ coffee a month, you can get information not on the blog as well as early releases of the post such as this one.  There are other levels of support as well, so feel free to check it out.  What’s more, you only pay for the posts you get.  So, if I don’t produce anything, you don’t owe anything.  It’s a great way to encourage me to write, and to produce really cool things.  Join up at Patreon and become The Rational Heathen’s patron! 

Heaven, Hel, and Valhalla, or Going to Hel in a Handbasket (Part 1)

Heaven, Hel, and Valhalla, or Going to Hel in a Handbasket (Part 1)

One of the things that keeps cropping up from time to time is the question of death and what comes afterwards. As a person who is past middle age (unless I get to live more than 100), it’s a question that preoccupies me a bit more. Once we shrug off the mortal coil, our very short lives seem pointless if there’s nothing afterward.  So, I’m going to tackle this in a scientific and possibly philosophic view.  Stay with me on this. It may be a bit on the ugly side.  And, it’s probably going to be several posts.

What Science Has to Say About an Afterlife

I was pretty sure what science had to say about the afterlife, but I wanted to make sure before I gave you some antiquated information. So, I decided to check the Interwebs for anything new on the subject, and apparently, there is. Seems there was a study finished in 2014 that looked at out of body and near-death experiences. As a scientist, I look at the conclusions people have drawn with full skepticism and will try to couch it in terms of logic.

Q: I told you. You’re dead, this is the afterlife, and I’m God.
Capt. Picard: [laughs scornfully] You are not God!
Q: Blasphemy! You’re lucky I don’t cast you out, or smite you, or something. The bottom line is, your life ended about five minutes ago under the inept ministrations of Dr. Beverly Crusher.
Capt. Picard: No, I am not dead. Because I refuse to believe that the afterlife is run by you. The universe is not so badly designed
.” — Tapestry, Star Trek: The Next Generation.

Scientists and God

First, let’s look at what scientists believe in terms of a god.  In 2005, about two-thirds of the scientists surveyed admitted they believed in a god, and presumably, an afterlife. This surprised me, because a large portion of what we see in the news suggests that most scientists are atheists, when they are in fact not.  You end up seeing more atheists (about 38 percent) in the natural sciences such as physics, biology, and chemistry and fewer atheists in social sciences (about 31 percent).  So, even in the disciplines such as physics, brilliant people such as Stephen Hawking who claim their is no god or afterlife are in the minority. In another study, some 76 percent of doctors believed in a god and 59 percent believe that we have an afterlife waiting for us.

Now, whether there truly is an afterlife isn’t a matter of opinion.  There either is an afterlife or there isn’t — it’s not a popularity contest where the most believers choose their fate after death. You may be the only person who believes that we all become weevils on the great celestial potato in another dimension, but if you’re right, you’re right, and the rest of us wankers are clearly wrong. The reality is that with our current technology, we won’t know until we die.

Studies Suggest Something Else — Maybe

In 2014, a study concluded that actually searched for an afterlife.  About 40 percent of people who were clinically dead and resuscitated had a near-death experience. One man who was clinically dead for three minutes could recall accurately the work being done to resuscitate him even though technically the brain stops working about 30 seconds after the heart stops. His experience was the “out of body” kind, where he was hanging out in the room “watching” everything.

So, this may be proof that when you’re “mostly dead,” you’re still a little bit alive and aware.  Or it might simply be a delusion that our minds put together when we get jumpstarted.  Who knows?

Mostly Dead, or When are We Actually Dead?

To confuse matters, after you die, you aren’t totally dead for days, if not weeks. The body goes through a type of rally where stem cells reactivate and try to get you living again, even if it’s a lost cause. Some researches found live stem cells in cadavers that were 17 days old.

This, of course, gives us a gigantic problem.  Science isn’t really sure when we’re all dead.  When we die, we’re mostly dead.  To quote Miracle Max, “Mostly dead is still slightly alive.”

“Miracle Max: He’s only mostly dead. If he were all dead, there’s only one thing you can do.

Inigo Montoya: And what’s that?

Miracle Max: Go through his pockets and look for loose change.”The Princess Bride

I bring this up because it begs the question of when our spirit/soul/souls actually leave. Do they leave with the loss of our conscious selves, or does it leave with our bodies once they’re actually “all dead?”  Or do they hang around in the grave?

 Lost Souls

I haven’t even touched on the quantum theory that information cannot be destroyed. Or the fact that our linear view of time is simply our way of dealing with reality, but in quantum theory, time is mostly irrelevant.  In some part of the universe, everyone is alive.  The fixed points are causes and results.

After all this much ado about souls and afterlife, scientists can’t seem to agree on whether there is an afterlife or not. It pretty much falls under the “we have no credible evidence of souls, afterlife, or gods.” Perhaps that is the place where religion fits in — where science can’t answer.  If, at some time science provides us with an answer, either yea or nay, we’ll probably have to look at our ancestors’ views as a way they explained the world around them — just like we do today.

If you enjoyed this post, consider becoming a patron of The Rational Heathen.  For about the cost of a Starbucks’ coffee a month, you can get information not on the blog as well as early releases of the post such as this one.  There are other levels of support as well, so feel free to check it out.  What’s more, you only pay for the posts you get.  So, if I don’t produce anything, you don’t owe anything.  It’s a great way to encourage me to write, and to produce really cool things.  Join up at Patreon and become The Rational Heathen’s patron!