Thursday, August 17, 2006

Beyond Midgard

The Heathen concept of afterlife is challenging to describe in short terms, because Heathens (past and present) have conceived of a variety of possibilities for where we go after passing beyond Midgard. While some of this lack of uniformity can be placed with influence from other cultures, one also has to remember that the term Heathen itself, in its most historical sense, applied to a considerable number of tribes and people. Each of these tribes had outside contacts and influences of their own. As well, there are a few concepts concerning life on Midgard (our living world) that figure very importantly into the afterlife concepts of Heathenry.

First and foremost of these is Wyrd. Wyrd (from which the modern word, weird, comes) is perhaps best, and most shortly described as "...a process that continually works the patterns of the past into the patterns of the present."[1] Many liken it to Karma, but there are subtle differences. Namely, Wyrd is a dynamic process, it is always turning, always becoming. It can also be changed, depending on one's level of conscious will. An element of Wyrd, which more resembles Karma, is called Ørlög (sometimes spelled orlog, or urlog) - this is basically the record of deeds one commits, the past from which the present is made in the process of Wyrd.[2] Essentially, what deeds we commit will be turned into the present and future in an ever-evolving cycle. There is some element of predetermination, but only to the degree one allows - someone who takes control of his or her life will take more control of his or her fate. Wyrd also can be described as a personal force and a universal force. Another aspect of this that should be mentioned is that, to Heathens, Ørlög is also ancestral. What we do in our lives will affect the lives of our descendants. With all of this said, one area in which Heathens do reach a sort of consensus about the afterlife is that it is influenced heavily by one's Wyrd.

The Christian concept of sin is something else that should be discussed. A belief in this concept involves the idea that the soul transforms or is saved through atonement. This doesn't exist in the Heathen perspective. It doesn't mean that we don't evolve or change, but we don't believe in atonement at the spiritual level (although at the social level, atonement is well-understood by Heathens). We live our lives to the best of our ability, trying to improve our Wyrd and the Ørlög of our families - there is no 'sin' in Heathenry, there is only right and wrong, and no sense of forgiveness like what is believed in Judeo-Christian religions. The other concept quite foreign to Heathenry is that of waiting around in some sort of Purgatory - where ever it is we go, we believe that we get there pretty quickly.

With our afterlife determined in great part by our deeds, let's look now to what possibilities might be available. Perhaps the most famous possibility is Valhalla - Odin's great hall of the weapon-slain, who battle every day only to be fully restored and grandly feasted every night.[3] The prospect of entering Valhalla, and one day standing with Odin at the final battle of Ragnarok, was so great that Heathens who were dying of sickness or old age (called the straw death, for basically dying in bed) would deliberately wound themselves with a spear shortly before dying. Most war veterans would agree that an eternity of combat is far from 'heaven' - but there is also the possibility that this outcome was glorified by the nobility in the Viking Age, in order to gain more warriors for contemporary times, it seems to hold greatest importance for those who have not spent much time in war.

Only some of the weapon-slain enter Valhalla, though - others are chosen by Freyja to dwell in her hall, Folkvang. What happens to these warriors we aren't told; but since Freyja is both a battle goddess and fertility goddess, it's safe to assume that they don't rest idly. Those interested in spending eternity with Odin or Freyja, or any of the other gods, don't have to die in combat to do so. Odin has another hall, Valaskjalf, Freyja also has Sessrumnir to offer, and each of the other gods and goddesses have their own halls, as do the giants. Two examples directly given in our lore, that tell us these other gods and giants take humans in are the halls of Ægir and Gefjon. Gefjon is the goddess of virgins, and when a woman dies still a virgin, she goes to Gefjon's hall.[4] Sailors who perish at sea are taken to dwell in the hall of the giants, Ægir and Ran, where those who wish to gain favor from Ran had best hope that they drowned with a piece of gold on them.[5] Taking all of this into consideration, it can be said that if a Heathen is to end up dwelling in the hall of a god or giant in the afterlife, it would tend to be with the god or giant that the person's life (or death) was most associated with.

Another place to spend the afterlife is in Hel - and here is where things start to get sort of complicated. First, Hel can refer to either the domain of the dead, or the goddess of the dead. Snorri Sturluson tells us in his Prose Edda that Hel is the place where people go when they have died an inglorious death (or straw death). It is also where oath-breakers go. Snorri's description of Hel (both hall and goddess) is bleak, and leads one to believe that it should be avoided at all costs.[6] One of the other descriptions of Hel that motivates many Heathens to loathe the place is that the denizens of Hel are prophecied to join with the giants in attacking the Æsir in the final battle of Ragnarok. The problem with this, though, is that it is also where two gods and one goddess find themselves. When Baldr is killed by his brother, Hod, Baldr goes to Hel - where he finds the hall decked out in splendor to receive him. After Baldr dies, his wife, Nanna throws herself on Baldr's funeral pyre and thus joins her husband in Hel. When Hod is in turn killed by Vali in vengeance, Hod also joins Baldr in Hel. When Odin sends a messenger to Hel to see how Baldr and Nanna are doing, they seem to have little complaint. Also, when it comes to Ragnarok, we are told that Baldr, Hod (and presumably Nanna) return to Asgard after the battle - we aren't told that they engage the Æsir in this battle, which means that not all residing in Hel are doomed to fight the gods.

Adding to the complication of Hel, we have Niflheim and Niflhel. We also have Nastrond, which is the utter worst part of Niflhel. Niflheim and Niflhel can be and often are used interchangeably.[7] It is most often considered that the place these names refer to is reserved for the most wicked and treacherous of people and; where Hel's description may seem bleak, Niflhel's description is much more so. It is the place in the Heathen lore that most fits the modern Christian conception of Hell, and there are some who argue that the Christian conception of Hell actually comes from the Heathen Niflhel. Freezing, being forced to wade through poison and swords, getting chewed on by a dragon - Niflhel is not a nice place to be. More likely, to help solve a little of this confusion, the realm of Niflheim is divided into different layers or places, each catering to a different kind of spirit. This explanation would also serve to clarify why not all residents of Hel are doomed to fight against the gods at Ragnarok, and would also explain why many contemporary Heathens actually have little problem with the idea of going to Hel upon leaving Midgard. It might seem that, with no belief in sin, there is a contradiction of sorts at work with the belief in Niflhel - and there might well be - but it is just as possible that our Heathen forebears understood that a bad spirit would ruin the afterlife for others, and that there had to be a place to remove them to. This would be in keeping with a lack of belief in the transformation of the soul, which doesn't preclude the concept of punishment and reward in regards to the Wyrd one lives in life.

But dwelling among gods and giants aren't the only possibilities. Heathenry presents at least three different ways in which a person might not actually leave Midgard! First and foremost, and probably one of the oldest of Heathen afterlife beliefs, is that when a person dies, they simply inhabit their grave mound. This would be somewhat like the Egyptian concept, except mounds were much smaller than pyramids. They were, however, well-supplied with gear, food, and company (in the old days, some Heathens would have their slaves interred with them). In times of important decisions, Heathens were known to go to sleep on grave mounds, letting the wisdom of the dead come to them in their dreams. Another way in which the dead would remain in Midgard was if a part of the dead person's body were buried near or under the home - this wasn't done to trap the person, it was done so that said person's spirt could always watch over the family and home. Heathens consider the body and soul to be interconnected on multiple levels, and so it is no surprise that keeping some part of the body nearby would be seen as a way for at least part of the spirit to remain in Midgard. Cremation, on the other hand, was seen as a means by which to set the spirit free of Midgard immediately.[8] The other means by which a Heathen might find his or her self spending the afterlife in Midgard is through reincarnation. In Heathenry, it is believed that people sometimes reincarnate several times through their own family line - keeping certain names within the family, or naming a child after an honored ancestor, has to do with this belief. The inheritance of Ørlög, along with other aspects of the body-soul complex, is a form of reincarnation within itself.

Reincarnation, dwelling in the grave mound, residing in some part of Hel, or residing among the gods or giants - each of these are possibilities for the afterlife, and are determined mainly by how a person lives and dies in this world. With so many possibilities, and Wyrd the only constant, the only certainty is this:

Cattle die, and kinsmen die,
And so one dies one's self;
One thing now that never dies,
The fame of a dead man's deeds.[9]

[1] What is Wyrd? by Arlea Æðelwyrd Hunt-Anschütz, 2000
[2] Wyrd is sometimes used interchangeably with Ørlög; but it is more accurate to say that Wyrd is a process that involves Ørlög.
[3] For further information about Valhalla, I recommend this short article in Wikipedia.
[4] Prose Edda, Gylfaginning XXXV.
Teutonic Myth and Legend (ch. 11), Donald MacKenzie, 1912
[6] For a more thorough description, read this article in Wikipedia.
[7] Because of Niflheim being used as the realm opposite Muspelheim in Gylfaginning V, my personal preference is to use Niflheim as the realm that includes Hel, Niflhel and also Nastrond.
[8] Risala (§ 92), Ahmad ibn Fadlan, 921 CE.
[9] Havamal (st. 78)

*This article was posted by Bjorn of Expanding Inward while he was a guest blogger here. When I switched over to the new Blogger system on 9/12/06, the byline was changed by Blogger. I want to give credit where credit is due.


Mike said...

I love your mythic descriptions of the various gods' & goddess's halls! Such a rich pantheon.

I find it particularly interesting how the Heathen system incorporates both reincarnation and single-life concepts. It's also neat how Dante's Inferno mirrors, to some extent, the levels in Niflheim (with different philosophical underpinnings, of course).

Bernulf said...

I'm glad that you enjoyed the post! I agree about the incorporation of reincarnation and single-incarnation concepts - I also find it interesting. I think, though, that this is one of the strengths of Heathenry, in that it includes so many concepts that are opposite one another. This goes all the way back to our creation stories, where the first creations came from the intermingling of fire and ice.

Nixie B said...

Another fascinating post! I'm so impressed with the depth of your knowledge.

You mentioned the Heathen belief that souls reincarnate to keep themselves in the family. That reminded me of a tradition that my teacher told me about - I think it was from an ancient tribe in Siberia. He said they believed that each of us actually has three souls. One is unique to this incarnation, this body we are living in, this particular lifetime. One is a soul that has lived many lifetimes and has been reborn in this being that we are. And one is a sort of collective soul, made up of all of our ancestors. I thought it was a very interesting idea and I like the implications it has for how our current selves are informed by the past, yet unique to this moment.

Ancestors seem to be a very important aspect of Heathenry. I like that. Especially in the American culture, we don't seem to be as connected to ancestors as we used to be. It's nice to see a tradition that upholds those beliefs.

Bernulf said...

I'm glad you enjoyed the post! We say quite often that Heathenry is a religion with homework...I'll take your compliment as a sign that I've been doing mine. Ancestor veneration is definitely an important aspect of Heathenry...we consider our gods to be honored ancestors, so it's fair to say that reverence for our ancestors is a fundamental aspect of Heathenry.

I think part of the disconnection to ancestors in America rests with the mass amount of immigration that built the country...record keeping wasn't as good as it could've been, and probably more than a few immigrants liked it that way. Another source of this could lie with the fact that ancestor veneration isn't a key component of the religion that's dominated America for the past 150 years or so. I still find it sad, whatever the reason.

Mike - getting back to something you said about Dante, I think that there are some interesting parallels. The division of the underworld seems to be a pan-European concept prior to Christianity, and I think that this is another of the Indo-European commonalities we touched on before :)