With popular TV series depicting Viking beliefs about the afterlife, more people than ever are gaining interest in what happens when a Viking dies in ancient times. The images of funeral pyre and boats set ablaze paint quite the picture, but the reality of the Norse belief system goes further than this.
Jump ahead to these sections:
- What Is the Norse Afterlife Called?
- The Makeup of a Norse Soul
- What Determines Someone’s Fate in the Afterlife?
- What’s the Norse Afterlife Like?
- Christian Influence in the Viking Afterlife
The Vikings were the people who lived in Scandinavia from the 8th century through the 11th century. They made a name for themselves by sailing across Europe, trading and raiding local villages.
According to the Vikings, there were never any set-in-stone doctrines about what happens when someone dies. However, there are some patterns in Norse literature and records that help us piece together what the Viking afterlife was supposed to be like.
What Is the Norse Afterlife Called?
If you look closely at death in different cultures, you’ll start to recognize different names for the afterlife. For the Vikings, there were many other worlds where the dead were thought to end up.
The most famous spiritual world was Valhalla. This translates to “the hall of the fallen,” and it’s where the god Odin resides. The god Odin was associated with death and wisdom, and he is the one who chooses who lives in Valhalla in the afterlife.
However, Valhalla isn’t the only plane of the afterlife that the Norse called upon in their writings. The goddess Freya also had her own hall for the dead known as Folkvang. This term translates to “field of warriors,” but there isn’t any clear indication of what this place was like.
Freya is the goddess of fertility and magic, and her land also welcomed some of the most famous warriors. For those who died at sea, they would reside in the underwater afterlife belonging to Ran, a giantess in Norse mythology.
The majority of deceased Vikings were thought to go to Helheim. This is a world beneath the ground, and it’s ruled by a goddess named Hel. While it might sound similar to the western concept of Hell, it was not the same place.
As you can see, the Norse afterlife was a complex place. The main difference between this belief of the afterlife and other ancient cultures is that the Norse had many different afterlives depending on how someone lived their life.
The Makeup of a Norse Soul
The soul was fragmented into many parts that made up a single person in Norse mythology. Not all of these parts go on to the afterlife. According to some legends, parts of the soul are born into a new body, usually a newborn relative.
The soul has four parts:
- Hamr: This is one’s physical appearance, and it could shape-shift after death.
- Hugr: The Hugr is someone’s personality. This continues after death and onto the afterlife.
- Fylgja: This is similar to the concept of a spirit animal or totem. Each person has their own familiar spirit unique to their personality. For instance, a wise person has an owl or a warrior has a wolf.
- Hamingja: Finally, this refers to someone’s inherent success. This was seen as a quality formed by one’s personality. It was also passed on through families or good fortune.
Only the Hugr continues after death, but all of these parts of the soul play a large role in one’s legacy. Some of the Viking’s artwork and myths center around these unique fragments of oneself.
What Determines Someone’s Fate in the Afterlife?
In Norse mythology, only the soul continues to the afterlife. Living a life of honor and respect was important in Viking society, and this was thought to affect one’s destination in the realms after death. The gods and goddesses were the ones who determine an individual’s fate in the afterlife.
The first god to pick is Freya, the goddess of fertility and magic. Freya chose the greatest who fell in battle, typically the choicest warriors. Next, Odin, the god of war and wisdom, makes his choice for his infamous Valhalla. These were also usually the greatest fallen heroes, lending to Valhalla’s notoriety.
Since this is confusing to decipher, here’s a simple way to look at the organization of the afterlife based on how someone lived or died in Viking society:
- Warriors who died in battle: The greatest warriors who died on the battlefield go to either Folkvangr or Valhalla, depending on the god that chooses them.
- Sailors who died at sea: Viking life centered around seafaring. As such, those who die at sea find their afterlife below the depths with the giantess called Ran.
- Vikings who died outside of battle: For those who die in a “normal” way outside of a battle or at sea, they rest in Helheim over the watchful eye of the goddess Hel.
There is also thought to be a holy mountain, Helgafjell. This mountain was either a special place or just a nearby mountain. For those in this holy mountain, the afterlife continued similar to in real life. Many Norse people were thought to have the ability to see into this holy mountain.
The main thing that determines someone’s fate is how they die. For those who die in battle, they face an afterlife of glory and celebration. For everyone else, a less glamorous afterlife awaits.
Because of this, there are many myths depicting warriors cutting themselves on their deathbeds to trip the gods into thinking they died in battle. All of this goes to show just how important war and battles were to the Vikings.
What’s the Norse Afterlife Like?
The Norse afterlife depends greatly on the realm to which people are sent. It’s hard to separate these concepts from the Christan belief in Heaven and Hell, but it’s important to see these are the separate places they were. Most people think of the afterlife as having a “reward” or “punishment” system. In the world of the Norse, this wasn’t the case.
People simply were thought to rest in different places, depending on how they died (in battle, at sea, or in normal life). The Viking funeral practices reflect this belief, with dramatic funeral pyres set out to sea on boats. Each person was laid to rest with dignity and respect worthy of the life they lived.
It’s quickly apparent that each realm of the afterlife is relatively mundane. There is no salvation or damnation here. Here is what the Norse expected in each individual place:
- Valhalla: The famous hall of heroes was a place where Viking warriors would meet old friends, enjoy great food and drink, and fight to build their strength. Both men and women were welcome in Valhalla, depending on their death.
- Folkvangr: Because little was depicted about this realm, it’s hard to describe what it was thought to be like for the Norse who rested here. However, since Freya was shown as a kind, giving goddess, this was likely a pleasant resting place.
- Helheim: This land rested under the earth, and it’s described as a fog-world. This would be an uneventful experience.
- Ran: This resting place at the bottom of the ocean is illuminated by a pile of treasure taken from all of Ran’s sailors. There aren’t any clear assumptions about life in Ran.
There was no suffering nor eternal glory in these afterlives. In the pre-Christian Scandinavia, death was seen as a tragedy. The dead were honored with rituals and traditions, and the afterlife was nothing to look forward to.
Christian Influence in the Viking Afterlife
One important thing to consider in regards to the Norse afterlife is the influence of Christianity. Since the Vikings did little to record their own belief system, most of the written accounts come from post-Christian sources. As such, it’s not clear just how much Christianity has influenced these ideas of what comes after death.
The depictions of Valhalla, Folkvangr, and Helheim were largely kept alive by oral storytelling traditions. Depictions of this society in popular shows like Vikings and The Last Kingdom all reveal just how big of a role Christianity played in altering these traditions over time. Unfortunately, there is no way to know exactly what Vikings expected in the afterlife so many centuries ago.
Decoding the Norse Afterlife
If there’s one thing you take away from this guide, it’s that the afterlife in North mythology is complicated. Despite years of study, scholars are still confused about many of the key belief systems. However, we understand that the Vikings honors those who died in battle, while also avoiding punishments for those who lived normal lives.
The lack of clear understanding reflects the uncertainty Vikings felt about what came after death. In a world of war, seafaring, and pillaging, it’s no surprise that death was a foggy place for many. It’s unlikely that we’ll ever have all of our questions about the Viking’s understanding of the afterlife answered. Still, it’s interesting to see how this strong tribe of people made their own order and sense through mythology.
- Engelberger, Alisha, Robert Wellman. “Celtic and Norse Cultures Interpreted Through Their Beliefs in Thor and the Morrigan.” The University of Wisconsin. 14 April 2018. UWM.edu.
- Mark, Joshua J. “Norse Ghosts & the Afterlife.” Ancient History Encyclopedia. 10 December 2018. Ancient.eu.