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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.

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Is There Such a Thing as Good and Evil in Heathen Belief? (Part Two)

Is There Such a Thing as Good and Evil in Heathen Belief? (Part Two)

The previous week, I talked about good and evil in folk tales, which is a window into our pagan past. Now, I’m going to address the concept of good and evil as it pertains to the heathen gods, jotnar, and wights.  It’s not as far fetched as many people will make us believe.

Let’s Get Christianity Out of the Way First

Before I start, I’m going to have to address Christianity, the 800-pound gorilla in the room.

Christianity and other Abrahamic religions have a bunch of rules that you have to follow in order to reach heaven.  Depending on your form of Christianity, it is belief based, but it is often rule based too.  In Catholicism which I grew up in, it wasn’t enough to believe in Christ to be saved.  You also had to not sin. God kept a running tally of sins on you, both mortal and venial. Mortal sins were those sins that sent you straight to the Christian hell, do not pass go, do not collect $200. Venial sins were considered minor (telling white lies, not listening to your parents, etc) and you wound up in a cheery place called purgatory to spend your time until god thought you suffered long enough to go to heaven or until the second coming of Christ.

Good and evil in Christianity and other Abrahamic religions is defined by a moral code given by their god. They define evil as rebelling or turning away from their god. Evil is not defined as the act, but rather what the god says it is.  So, for example, eating meat (but somehow fish and seafood are not meat) on Fridays during lent is a sin, even though eating meat is not a sin.  Murder is wrong, but taking your homeland away from Canaanites and putting everyone to the sword is okay, even though they did nothing wrong because your god said it was okay.  In the end, evil is looked at as rebellion against their god (hence the reason Satan is evil).  You figure that four of the ten commandments has to do with their god and not rules to live by and get along with each other.

Heathenry is not Christianity and the concept of tallying every little mistake we make in life and paying for it for eternity is ludicrous at best. In the Abrahamic religions, list of potential sins easily outweigh what isn’t a sin, and quite frankly there’s no way you can ever get to heaven with that laundry list. Some of the sins ban things in human nature such as sexual acts, masturbation, swearing, and even challenging your parents when you’re a teenager. Some are just plain made up so it forces you to become indoctrinated. You can go straight to hell for not attending church on Sundays, for example.

Oh Hell

It’s funny because the concept of hell is relatively new and is not part of Old Testament scripture. The Jewish people believed in sheol which is much like our Helheim, which was simply a place for the dead. Even the word, Gehenna, was used to suggest an underworld and not hell.

We see the word Gehenna used thirteen times in the New Testament which was actually a place outside of Jerusalem where they burned their garbage and unclean bodies. We can safely assume this is the Christian hell because it is a “unquenchable fire.”  Still, we know that the earliest part of the New Testament was written by Paul around 50 CE (Common Era) or 50 AD (Anno Domini), if you use the old nomenclature. The Gospel of Matthew, which is the oldest Gospel, is thought to have been written around 80 to 90 CE, some 50+ years after Jesus supposedly died. For the sake of argument, scholars accept the range of 70 to 110 CE for when it might have been penned. We know that there was a fair amount of Greek and Roman influence in early Christianity.  It would not be surprising if they adopted Tartarus from the Greeks. More on this later.

Thoughts on Heathenry Hell

As heathens, we don’t believe in sin, but we clearly can see both good and evil deeds. Our judgment of what is good and what is evil can sometimes be in flux, given the situation, but I would propose that there are rules to this and they’re not as flexible as you might think. The other side of the coin is that we do have a type of hell for the really bad people.  That is Náströnd where Níðhöggr chews on the corpses of the evil doers: the oath breakers, the adulterers, and the murderers. You might point at that and say that this is from Christianity, but I don’t think so. Other religions with afterlifes often have some sort of place for punishing those who offend the gods. The ancient Egyptians had a place of punishment for the wicked in the cult of Osiris, Buddhism has an afterlife which has much suffering (although you don’t stay there for eternity), and Naraka in Asian cultures. So, enough religions do seem to have concepts of a place of punishment, even if some don’t.

Let’s look at the classic Greeks’ (and ultimately the Romans’) ideas of the underworld.  They’re remarkably like ours with some differences. The Greeks had Hades, the place of where the dead resided similar to Helheim. They also had their own version of hell called Tartarus which is where evildoers went, those who ticked off the gods went, and was the place where the Greek version of the Jotnar resided.  Those Jotnar were called Titans who were overthrown by Zeus and the Greek gods. Our Helheim is guarded by Garm; the gates of the classic Greek underworld are guarded by a magical hound, Kerberos. You cross a river to get to the underworld: the Greeks required Charon; the Norse figured someone could have built a bridge.

I bring this up because there’s enough similarity between the two afterlifes to point at them and say at one time, our common knowledge fuels our collective unconscious. I suspect it is because we pretty much came from one set of humans that didn’t go extinct when the universe was trying to end us in some fashion.  Our stories changed over time, but they’re still recognizable, to the point where Tacitus was calling Thor the name of Jupiter and Tyr the name of Mars, when explaining the religion of the Germanic tribes.

Good and Evil with the Gods and Jotnar

So, if we look at the Aesir, Vanir, and Jotnar, we get an idea of what is good and what is evil. I would argue that what makes an Aesir and not a Jotnar is their attitude toward humans.  We can look at our gods and point to their Jotnar roots.  Some of the Aesir were even considered Jotnar until they were accepted into the Aesir clan.  I’m think Skadi, in particular.

Jotnar, by their very nature, do not care about humans. They are, in many cases, natural forces, including forces of chaos. In some cases, the Jotnar may be outright antagonistic to humans. They’re given some pretty nasty names such as “Evil Striker” and “She who brings grief” — not the kind of names you’d associate with helpful critters.  One may be able to make the case for Loki not being fully Jotnar in nature because he doesn’t always do evil.  He may cause trouble, being the trickster that he is, but until he causes Baldur’s death, he’s more just a pest and not necessarily an evil god.

So, a heathen should probably look at that which hurts people as being evil, as opposed to that which has the interests of humans at heart.  “But wait!” you say, “Even the gods have harmed people.” Yup.  You’re right.  And that is what we consider evil acts, even if the god can be considered mostly good.

Ethics of Reciprocity

So, I’m going back to the old ethics of reciprocity rule I’ve mentioned in my post Are the Gods

People? Sometimes called “The Golden Rule” in Christianity, this rule shows up time and time again in other religions that have had nothing to do with the white Christ. Whether you believe it is ordained by some deity, or whether you think it is some in our nature, I think it likely that this rule — and this rule alone — governs our existence.  Whether you want to follow the Nine Noble Virtues,  the Havamal, or some other rule book, if it isn’t some weird text, chances are it is based on the ethics of reciprocity.

Good and Evil in the Myths

Let’s take a look at the creation myth in some detail. To quote:

Ymir was a frost-giant, but not a god, and eventually he turned to evil.

Well, okay then.  We can point to Snorri Sturluson’s Christianity as a reason for this value judgment, but I have my doubts.  More on this:

After a struggle between the giant and the young gods, Bor’s three sons killed Ymir. So much blood flowed from his wounds that all the frost-giants were drowned but one, who survived only by building an ark for himself and his family. Bor’s sons dragged Ymir’s immense body to the center of Ginnungagap, and from him they made the earth. Ymir’s blood became the sea, his bones became the rocks and crags, and his hair became the trees. Bor’s sons took Ymir’s skull and with it made the sky. In it they fixed sparks and molten slag from Muspell to make the stars, and other sparks they set to move in paths just below the sky. They threw Ymir’s brains into the sky and made the clouds. The earth is a disk, and they set up Ymir’s eyelashes to keep the giants at the edges of that disk.

The reason Ymir is judged evil is because he fought with the young gods.  About what and why, we don’t know.  And that is often the problems with losing so much of our stories. We don’t know why he is evil, only that he is.  Which means people understood the concept of good and evil right there. We don’t have to ask why Ymir is evil.  He is evil because he is. It may be because he is not of the gods and therefore against them.

As an aside, you’ll note the flood story in the middle of this.  Interestingly enough, it is a Jotnar family that survives and not humans (who haven’t been created yet) or gods (who are apparently elsewhere).  I can’t say whether this is a Snorri Sturluson’s nod to the Noah story or whether this is really a flood story of our own.  Given that most cultures seem to have flood stories in their mythos, it’s conceivable that we had it too.

So, What Have I Decided?

It’s hard to completely get away from the concept of good and evil in Heathenry. I think that is because we do have a concept of good and evil, albeit not the same list of rules that the Abrahamic religions have. I suspect that people who follow the Northern religions do so because there is a sense of honor in them, and a lack of cookbook salvation. In the end, we go to Helheim, Valhalla, Fólkvangr, or one of the other gods halls. None of them are bad save Náströnd where the really evil people go.

I think living honorably is probably the best in determining whether we act good or evil. We can look at acts and say “this is good” or “this is evil” by looking at the amount of harm done to someone. A white lie might be a Christian sin, but we can look to see what the intent and the outcome is. If it causes positive things to happen, then how can it be a bad thing? Telling a loved one they look awesome, when maybe they just look cleaned up, is an exaggeration, but if it causes them to take care of themselves more or think more positively of themselves, we can’t consider that a wrong thing. While the ends do not justify the means, we can consider each action and what harm it will cause, if any, to guide us.

Again, if you act honorably, I believe no god or goddess will find fault with you.