The Heathen Afterlife
Why would anyone want to spend thousands of years in limbo waiting for Judgment Day, when they could get an instant ticket to a real afterlife? Had there been Heathen missionaries fourteen hundred years ago, that is the question they may have asked those about to convert to Christianity, or the Christian missionaries themselves. Needless to say, this may have been the very question Penda asked the missionaries that caused him not to convert ala Radbod the Frisian. Radbod of Frisia had one foot in the baptismal font, and was ready to be baptized when he asked, "Where are my dead ancestors at present?" Wolfram the Christian missionary answered, ""In Hell, with all other unbelievers." Upon hearing this, Radbod removed his foot from the font and responded, "Then I would rather live there with my honourable ancestors than go to heaven with a parcel of beggars ." Wolfram and his missionaries were expelled, Wolfram narrowly escaping sacrifice to the Heathen Gods. Such tales are rare, but it demonstrates that the Christians must have hidden the truth about their afterlife from those they were converting. According to Bede, one of King Edwin's men remarked about Heathen belief and the afterlife:
" The present life man, O king, seems to me, in comparison with that time which is unknown to us, like to the swift flight of a sparrow through the room wherein you sit at supper in winter amid your officers and ministers, with a good fire in the midst whilst the storms of rain and snow prevail abroad; the sparrow, I say, flying in at one door and immediately another, whilst he is within is safe from the wintry but after a short space of fair weather he immediately vanishes out of your sight into the dark winter from which he has emerged. So this life of man appears for a short space but of what went before or what is to follow we are ignorant. If, therefore, this new doctrine contains something more certain, it seems justly to deserve to be followed."
(J. H. Robinson, Readings in European History, (Boston: Ginn, 1905), pp. 97-105 )
This is true, there are no certainties when it comes to Heathen afterlife. But that is not to say it does not exist. Indeed, it does. It is merely to say there are many alternatives, and one does not know upon death which alternative one will get. Christianity, in that respect gave the ancient converts some sense of certainty. They would die, and go to purgatory to await judgment. From there they would either enter Heaven or be cast into the Abyss on Judgment Day . What's more the new religion taught that one only need to believe and all sins would be forgiven, an easy out compared to the old Heathen religion's strict ethic. The Heathen afterlife is not, a simple affair. However, despite all its complexities, one thing remains true regardless, evil deeds were punished harshly in the afterlife.
I saw there wading through rivers wild
Treacherous men and murderers too,
And workers of ill with the wives of men;
There Nithhogg sucked the blood of the slain,
And the wolf tore men; would you know yet more?
(Voluspa 39 Bellows translation)
On Nástrandir [corpse strands] there is a large and horrible hall whose doors face north; it is made of the backs of serpents woven together like wattle-work, with all their heads turning in to the house and spewing poison so that rivers of it run through the hall. Perjurers and murderers wade these rivers as it says here.
(The Deluding of Gylfi, Prose Edda, Young translation)
This, in truth, was perhaps the reason many Heathens converted to Christianity. Those that were guilty of fratricide, adultery, and other sins had nothing to lose by converting to Christianity, and everything to gain. Their conversion had nothing to do with the afterlife, or even more favour from the Christian God than they got from the Heathen ones. It had everything to do with forgiveness of sins, for that, basically, gave them a free ticket to do as they pleased (whereas Heathen doctrine had not). The way into the Heathen afterlife was clear, do not unjustly commit murder, break oaths, or commit adultery, or commit half a dozen other sins; and live a good, heroic life. Christianity, however, gave folks an easy way out. They could do these things and still go to Heaven. Why risk eternal damnation in the Heathen Hell when one could just say they believe, be prayed for while in Purgatory, and then get an easy ticket into the Christian Heaven? All this for simple belief and nothing more! It is no wonder many of the Christian Anglo-Saxon kings, hungry for power, and lacking in ethics converted.
Perhaps, an even greater injustice about ancient Heathen beliefs in the afterlife has been done by modern academics. Some modern scholars have tried to put forth that the ancient Anglo-Saxons had no belief in an afterlife, this despite such hard evidence as grave goods. They base this on several phrases in Old English and Norse texts such as the Havamal stating the best a warrior can hope for is everlasting fame. This logic of course would be the same as saying Catholics have no belief in an afterlife as they do not bury their dead with grave goods. Nevertheless, they cite phrases found like the following from Beowulf:
Grieve not, wise warrior. It is better
to avenge one's friend than mourn too much.
Each of us must one day reach the end
Of worldly life, let him who can win
glory before he dies: that lives on
after him, when he lifeless lies. (lines 1384-1391)
As well as phrases such as the following from the Havamal:
Cattle die, and kinsmen die,
thyself eke soon wilt die;
but fair fame will fade never:
I ween, for him who wins it.
(Hollander translation, verse 76)
What the scholars are seeing, however, is only half the formula. The purpose of a heroic life was, indeed, to gain everlasting fame. But the purpose of that fame was not an end unto its self, its purpose was to better one’s position in the afterlife, and that of one’s descendants. Only those that had done things for their folk could hope to make it into one of the abodes of the Gods. And the proof of these heroic deeds were the boasts made in symbel by descendants, the songs sung by the scop in hall, and the general retelling of one’s life. In essence, one’s fame served as a witness to one’s deeds that showed they were worthy of such a hall as say Valhalla. In addition, if one did not go to one of the abodes of the Gods, but instead was reborn, it improved the Wyrd one was reborn with. Everlasting fame was not immortality its self, but a step unto becoming immortal. That immortality could take a myriad forms however, as seen from what evidence exists in the Anglo-Saxon texts and the Norse about the afterlife.
The most obvious place to look for the Anglo-Saxon afterlife is modern English words of Old English descent that refer to it. Heaven and Hell both fit this criteria. Heaven is not commonly used of the Heathen paradise in the afterlife today. The primary reason is not is because it does not appear in the Old Norse version of the myths as an abode of the dead, and Germanic Paganism in general today is based on the Norse material. However, there are several indications that the ancient Anglo-Saxon Pagans may have used the term Heofon “heaven” to mean the afterlife paradise. Even in the earliest Christian poetry, the term heofon, or more commonly, a compound of it such as heofonríce “heaven kingdom” appears as either the abode of God, or as the home of the dead. This usage is not unheard of in the Old Norse texts either. The home of Hama (Heimdall) in the Eddas is said to be Himinbjörg “heaven mountain” or “heaven cliff.” Himinvanga “heaven plains” appears in Helgakviða Hundingsbana I used of an earthly place when speaking of valkyries riding to Helgi. However, it is entirely possible that this usage harkens back to an older usage of the term as referring to heaven (the valkyries appearing out of the heavens to ride to Middengeard). In the Old Saxon poem Heliand, a cognate of the Old Norse Himinvangr (the singular form of Himinvanga), hebanwang is used of the Christian heaven. It may be then, that at one time, the word Heaven was the common Germanic Heathen term for the afterlife abode.
The word heaven is thought to derive from Indo-European ‘*ke-men-, a compound word originally thought to have had the meaning of “stone.” *Ke- is believed to have derived from PIE *ak “edge,” while *-men meant “to think,” and dealt with states of mind and thought. Heaven is related both to the word hammer and the word mind, and its earliest meaning The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language takes to mean “the stony vault of heaven.” Neoweangla's Brian Smith in his article, “Heaven” states it as meaning “that which has a quality like stone,” and points out the family of Þórólfr Mosturskeggi, in the Landnámabók, believed their family would go to reside in a mountain after death (covered below). Others feel that the ancients thought the sky was made of stone, and thus the meaning of the word heaven. It would seem apparent though that both ideas could relate to the concept of Heaven. The most common usage of heofon in Old English was for sky. This was also true of its Old Norse cognate himinn. Other theories on the word’s origins relate it to Old English hama “covering, skin,” and this would make sense if the word has always meant sky (the sky “covers” the Earth). It could be that mountains, because of their sheer height, were associated with the sky and the Gods. This is so in other pantheons. The Greek Gods resided on Mount Olympus, and many other peoples associated holy mountains with their Gods. Similar to the belief of Þórólfr’s family that they “died into the mountain,” is one concerning Holda and the Brocken. With Holda we are offered a belief, though late, and potentially influenced with Classical myth, of a Goddess associated with a mountain and people residing in it with her. In 1630, during a witch trial in Hesse, Diel Breull, confessed to have traveled in spirit form to the Venusberg (Blocksberg or the Brocken. There he was shown by Frau Holt the sufferings of the dead refected in a pool of water, inside the mountain (Marion Ingham, The Goddess Freya and Other Female Figures, p.251). This source is very late however, and therefore very suspect. However, perhaps it does retain a part of Heathen belief in associating Germanic deities with mountains as an abode of the dead. What is clear however is that Heofon was seen as being above Middangeard while Hell was seen as being below. It could be then that the ancient Anglo-Saxons saw a world of opposites; Heofon as the bright and shining sky, and Hell as the dark and dreary underworld. It can perhaps be considered the same as Ésageard.
Hell has already been covered with the other nine worlds, however, it requires further mention here as an abode in the afterlife. The term Hell carried over into Christian usage originally as purgatory, not an abode of eternal punishment, but one of temporary stay, a limbo of sorts. We do not know if the pagan Anglo-Saxons held this view of Hell as a limbo where good and bad both go. And we are given few clues as to whether the pagan Anglo-Saxons viewed Hell as a place of punishment. Nor are we given clues of the happy home of Balder after his death seen in the Eddas (indeed that is nearly the only place in Old Norse Hel is not shown as dreary). All we do know is Hell is an abode of the dead, unlike that of the Christian version, but an abode of the dead nonetheless.
In Old English literature, we do see evidence of native beliefs regarding Hell, ones that are not borrowed from the Christian concept of a fiery abode. Either the Goddess, or her domain appear as taking those that die. When Grendel dies in Beowulf, it is said “in fenfreoðo feorh alegde, hæþene/ sawle; þær him hel onfeng,” “in his fen abode, his soul he laid down, his heathen soul Hel took.” It is not clear though if this is the Goddess or the place. Hell, as a place, is mentioned again in the Old English Christian poem, “Soul and Body I” where it is used of the grave and not some abode of punishment by fire. Interestingly though, when describing the body being eaten by worms, it uses Old English wyrmas “serpents.” Wyrm had not yet quite acquired its modern meaning of worm, and therefore it could be possible the poem, while Christian, contains a memory of what the Norse called Nástrønd. Other Old English poems such as “Judgement Day II” contain this torment by wyrmas. In the Old English poem, “Christ and Satan” it is very clear serpents, and not worms, are meant when describing Hell (although fiery) as “Hær is nedran swæg, wyrmas gewunade,” “Here is the adder’s noise, here serpents dwell.” Interestingly, while mentioning the Christian Hellfire, the poet also keeps referring to Hell with such phrases as “dimme and deorce,” “dim and dark,” and “ðissum dimman ham,” “this dim home.” It could be the Christian poets fell back on native belief of a cold and dark, viper ridden Hell in order to fill out descriptions of the Christian abode of punishment.
In the Norse Eddas, Hel is a very complex place composed of several different places. There is Hel, which can be used of the entire realm, a place where the dead, both the good and the bad go. Then there is Nifolhel, where those that have committed evil go. And finally for the most evil there is the Norse abode of punishment, Nástrønd, a place where poisonous snakes drip venom on the evil dead. Old English preserves a word that may have described this place in Wyrmsele, used of Hell in the Christian poem Judith. Taken literally, Wyrmsele would mean “serpent hall.” This word, coupled with evidence from the other Christian poems mentioned above shows the pagan Anglo-Saxons may have known a place not unlike Old Norse Nástrønd as a part of their version of Hell.
Finally, the word Hell derives from an Indo-European root, *kel-, which meant “to conceal or cover.” *Kel- also gave us hole, hollow, and hall from Old English, as well as cellar from Latin. Hell, just going by the origin of the word then would be someplace hidden, covered, or enclosed in some way. This corrensponds with the underworld abode seen in the Old Norse Eddas. Some scholars have suggested that like Hebrew sheol, it just meant the grave. However, if that were the case we would expect other words derived from the same IE root to have similar meanings. Yet the words hall, hollow, and cellar all derive from the same root, and little about them would imply a relation to a grave. It would seem then, that Hell would be a bit larger than a grave, dark and enclosed like a Hall perhaps, but not small and narrow like a grave. If Hell did indeed mean “grave” at some point, it would likely refer to the burial mounds or perhaps the ancient megalithic graves of Denmark which the Germanic tribes would be very familiar with. Too, it seems unlikely that a people who provided the dead with expensive grave goods to have believed that those good would never be used. Regardless, this etymology suggests an enclosed place. Along with the poetic evidence we can surmise the pagan Anglo-Saxon Hell was a dark and dreary place, probably a nether world, perhaps where souls stayed until reborn (or just stayed), with a special place where the truly evil were punished with serpents (not unlike the Norse version). Heaven and Hell are the extant of what we know about potentially ancient Anglo-Saxon beliefs in the afterlife. For a fuller picture of what they may have believed we must look to the Norse texts which are covered below.
In the Icelandic sagas the dead are often pictured as living in their burial mounds. Similar burial mounds have been found in England, good examples of which are the Sutton Hoo mounds, and the mound at Taplow. It could be then, that the Anglo-Saxons, or some segment of them shared this belief. The best example of life after death within the burial mound can be seen in Brennu-Njál's Saga.
"There was a bright moon with clouds driving over it from time to time. It seemed to them that the howe was open, and that Gunnarr had turned himself in the howe and looked up at the moon. They thought they saw four lights burning in the howe, but no shadow anywhere. They saw Gunnarr was merry, with a joyful face..." (translation taken from H.R. Ellis Road to Hel)
This idea appears in several other sagas, and therefore seemed a common Heathen belief. In the Helgakviða, Sigrun enters the mound of her husband to embrace him as in life, he then must ride to Valhalla. Burial mounds were also connected with the Elves, and there is some indication because of this that the Elves may have been nothing more than souls of the Dead. In Kormak's Saga, a sacrifice is made to Elves that live in a burial mound so that Thorvard Eysteinsson would be healed of a wound. King Olaf, Olaf the Unholy's ancestor Olaf was buried in a mound at Geierstað, and known as Olaf Geierstaðaálf "Olaf the Elf from Geierstað."
The Eyrbyggja Saga, preserves an account of an Icelandic family that felt when they died they would go to live in the mountain Helgafell.
".....he saw the whole north side of the mountain open up, with great fires burning inside it and the noise of feasting and clamour over the ale horns. As he strained to catch particular words, he was able to make out that Thorstein Cod-Biter and his crew were being invited to sit in the place of honour opposite his father"
(Palsson and Paul Edwards translation)
This belief is also mentioned in the Landnámabók, in reference to the same family. Brennu-Njál's Saga gives an account of fisherman claiming that Svanr the wizard was received into the mountain Kaldbak after he had drowned on a fishing trip. Several other sagas make mention of the belief or infer it, though it is not mentioned in detail. The concept of people "dying into a mountain" however, may be paralleled in more southern beliefs concerning the Venusberg. The only account of this belief that should concern us here is very late, but interesting nonetheless. In 1630, during a witch trial in Hesse, Diel Breull, confessed to have traveled in spirit form to the Venusberg (the Blocksberg or the Brocken). There he was shown by Frau Holt the sufferings of the dead reflected in a pool of water, inside the mountain (Marion Ingham, The Goddess Freya and Other Female Figures, p.251). Were it not for the Icelandic accounts, this story could be dismissed as a borrowing from Italy, or as sheer fantasy. However, Holda is portrayed in German folklore as a leader of the Wild Hunt, and is connected with a cult of witches once fabled to have met on the Brocken. Bruell's confession then may have had a thread of truth about it.
Realms of the Gods
The most famous of the God realms where the dead go is of course, Valhalla, which would have occurred in Old English as *Wælheall. No mention or even hint of it can be found in the Anglo-Saxon poetry. Nor can evidence be found in the Old Saxon literature either. However, that does not mean the ancient Anglo-Saxon Pagans did not believe in it in some form. *Wælheall as mentioned in the Prose Edda as being roofed with golden shields, and having more than six hundred and forty doors, its warriors are served mead by valkyries, half the battle slain everyday go to it. In addition, the dead warriors there feast on the boar, Sæhrímnir, who comes back to life every evening only to be slaughtered again, while mead flows from the utter of the goat Heiðrún into a cauldron to provide drink. This view taken from the Prose Edda, is no doubt highly romanticised. However, the core beliefs are there, warriors and others can die and go to *Wælheall, there they fight everyday to train for the war with the legions of the underworld. This belief could easily have been held by the ancient Anglo-Saxons as well, although we have no evidence of it. Other realms of the Gods besides *Wælheall are said in the Eddas to receive the dead. Vingólf (which can be reconstructed as OE *Wingéolf) is mentioned in the Prose Edda as receiving some of the Einherjar (though Snorri states in another place the righteous), as is a place called Gimlé (which Snorri holds to be one and the same). Vingólf is also said to be the hall of the Goddesses by Snorri. Other of the battle slain or Einherjar are said to go to Freo's hall Sessrumnir "many seated" in Folcwang. The Norse Goddesss Ran and Gefion (Geofon) are said in the Icelandic texts to take in the dead. Ran in particular takes in the souls of those have downed in the ocean.
There is some evidence that the ancient Norse believed in reincarnation of a sorts. There is no evidence that the Anglo-Saxon tribes shared this belief. However, the lack of evidence does not mean they did not. Indeed, it would be odd if they did not share this belief with the Norse. The ancient Norse appeared to have believed in two forms of reincarnation. The first was thought to occur with everyone, and involved the inheritance parts of an ancestor's soul. The hamingja was thought to be passed from an ancestor to a child named after them. This can be seen in the Finnboga Saga when a man begs his son to name a son after him so that his hamingja would follow, and Glumr in Viga Glum Saga claims to have the hamingja of his grandfather. This belief also appears in Svarfdæla saga, where Þórólfr says he will give all his hamingja to a child that bears his name. The ørlög of an ancestor was also thought to be passed to a descendant. This is most clearly seen in the Helgi lays, even though the three Helgis were not all related to each other. The soul then was reborn in part, but only those aspects that did not clearly define one as an individual. That is the ørlög, hamingja, and perhaps even the fetch may have been passed on, but not the mind, and mood of the individual. The hugr (Old English hyge) and munr (Old English mynd) would exist on in the afterlife with the soul that had possessed them in life.
There is evidence though for another form of reincarnation, and this may be what is referred to in the Helgi lays and certainly in regard to Óláfr Geirstaðaálfr and his descendant King Óláf (sometimes called Saint Olaf) as told in the Flateyjarbók. Throughout the tale there are indications Óláfr Geirstaðaálfr is King Óláf reborn. When King Óláf's mother is giving birth, she had great difficulty until the belt from the earlier Óláf 's mound is brought to her. As a grown man Odin (Woden) comes to King Óláf , and tells him that he is Óláfr Geirstaðaálfr, and not long after one of the king's followers inquires as to whether the king had been buried in Óláfr Geirstaðaálfr's mound. This could be reincarnation of the soul as a whole, and not just rebirth of parts of the soul.
The archaeological evidence of Anglo-Saxon graveyards along with the Norse texts show that the ancient Anglo-Saxons probably had a very rich belief in an afterlife. Many modern Heathens believe that when they die, provided they have committed no hideous crimes they will have a choice of where they wish to go. Regardless, the afterlife, like birth, and death seems all a part of one continuous life cycle.
Ellis, H. R. The Road to Hel: A Study of the Conception of the Dead in Old Norse Literature (New York: Greenwood Press).
Grimm, Jacob; James Stallybrass (tr.) Teutonic Mythology (4 vols). (Boston: Peter Smith Publishing
Grönbech, Vilhelm. Culture of the Teutons (London: Oxford University Press, 1931)