In this Chapter we consider the different views of Other World existence entertained in the pagan North.


The Norse word Hel with its cognates — Gothic halja, OS hellia, AS belle, OHG hella — denotes the general Underworld of the dead, a primitive conception of the Teutonic peoples. In Scandinavia alone is Hel also personified as ruler of this Underworld, but it is not always easy to differentiate person and place. Grimm thought that an early goddess of the dead gave her name to the region of the dead, but the reverse is more probably correct.

The abode of Hel is under one of the roots of Yggdrasil. Of Fafnir, Sigurd said that now Hel would have him, and Hogni said of the five sons of Butli that Hel has now the half. To come to Hel’s seat is to die.1 Hel has a dog, Garm, which barked at Odin when he went to consult the dead Volva. His breast is besprinkled with blood, and he howls loud before the Doom of the gods. Hel has also a rust-red cock which crows and awakens her dwellers.2 Snorri tells how Hermod rode down to Hel to seek Balder’s release from her. Her condition could not be fulfilled because of Loki, who said: “Let Hel hold what she has!” Hence Balder is called “companion of Hel.”3 Hel was said to be one of Loki’s monstrous offspring, whom Odin cast into Niflhel or Niflheim, giving her power over nine worlds, to apportion their dwellings to all who were sent to her, those who die of sickness or old age. She has a great abode.


Her hall is Sleet-cold; her servant Hunger; her maidservant Tardy; her threshold Sinking to destruction; her bed Disease; her bed-cover Unhappiness. She is half black and half flesh-colour, and with down-hanging head she looks grim and fierce.4 The personified Hel is somewhat monstrous, but Snorri, in this account, may have borrowed traits from Christian visions of Hell. Popular sayings, however, spoke of things “black as Hel,” and heljarskinn meant a complexion of a deathly hue.5

The personified Hel in Saxo is called Persephone, who appears to Balder before his death, saying that soon she will embrace him. So king Frodi, when dying, heard voices calling him “home to Hel.” A saying about the dead was: “Hel will fold thee in her arms.” The curious Solarljod or “Song of the Sun,” with its mixture of paganism and Christianity, speaks of the maidens of Hel calling to them a man about to die.6 The poem of Beowulf may preserve a memory of the personified Hel. In describing the death of Grendel, the poem says: “There Hel received him.”7

Hel as a place is deep down in the earth, enclosed, with one or more gates. Within is the hall of Hel, “a high house.”8 Near the entrance is Gnipahellir, “Cliff-cave,” where Garm, best of hounds, is set to guard.9 Hel is sometimes called Niflhel, which suggests a misty region (nifl, “mist,” “darkness”). But the description of it in Baldrs Draumar and in Snorri’s account of Hermod hardly bears this out. Balder sat on a high seat. The hall had benches bright with rings and platforms decked with gold. There the dead ate and drank mead.”10

The way to Hel is the Helveg, a troublesome road, though the plural is also used, as if there were more than one. When Hermod went to rescue Balder, he rode for nine nights through deep and dark vales to the river Gjoll, crossed by the Gjoll-bridge, thatched with gold. The maiden Modgud who guarded it asked his name, and said that on the previous day five companies of dead men rode over it, yet the bridge thundered no less under him alone. Why was he, who had not the hue of dead


men, riding on the Hel-way? Then, learning that he sought Balder, she permitted him to ride on the Hel-way to the North.11 When Brynhild, burned on a pyre, went in a wagon along Helway, she passed the house of a giantess who would have stopped her.12 Those who descended to Hel for tidings of the dead were said to perform the Hel-ride. The dead might traverse Helway on horseback: hence the custom of burying or burning the horse with its owner. Saxo tells how when Harald’s horse and chariot were burned on his pyre by Ring, he prayed that Harald might ride on this steed and reach Tartarus before those who fell with him, and that Pluto, lord of Orcus, might grant a calm abode to friend and foe.13 Possibly Odin and Valhall, not Hel, are here intended.

The Gjoll-bridge is perhaps “the brig o’ dread, na brader than a thread,” which, in Yorkshire belief, the dead had to cross.14 The toilsome journey to Hel was aided by the equipment buried with the dead, e.g., the Hel-skor (German Todtenschuh), “Hel-shoe.” The custom of providing shoes for the dead existed in prehistoric Europe and continued as a general custom. When Vestein was dressed for his barrow, Thorgrim said to Gisli: “It is the custom to bind on Hel-skua for folk to walk to Valhall, and I shall do this for Vestein.” After putting them on, he said: “I know nothing about binding on Hel-shoes if these loosen.”15 The shoes are here for the journey to Valhall, but the old name is retained. In Yorkshire, where we may see survivals of Teutonic custom, a pair of shoes given to a poor man in life would cause the giver after death to meet an old man who would present him with the same shoes at the edge of Whinnymoor, a region full of thorns and furze, which otherwise the spirit would have to traverse “wi’ shoonless feet.” This belief is illustrated by the Lyke-wake dirge, versions of which are still known in the north of England.16

Snorri limits Hel to the old and those who died a “straw death,” i.e., in bed. This is in keeping with the views which sent warriors to Valhall, women to Freyja, maidens to Gefjun, and


the drowned to Ran. Behind these views is the more primitive one that all, even warriors, go to the Underworld. The Eddic and skaldic conception of Valhall was mainly a product of the Viking age, and slain warriors were even yet said to go to Hel, e.g., Balder, Hjalmgunnar, warriors mentioned in Atlamal, Sigurd, and others. Thor threatened to smite Harbard and Loki and send them to Hel. Egil, after slaying three men, speaks of their faring to the high hall of Hel. Regin and Fafnir went to Hel, and Sigurd told Fafnir that a time comes when everyone must fare to Hel, fara til Heljar. Though this phrase may be used here and elsewhere in the conventional sense of “to die,” still it points to what was once regarded as following death.17 The same conception is seen as late as the time of the Saxon Widukind of Corvei, who says that gleemen declaimed after a victory: “Where is there an infernum so large as to hold such a multitude of the fallen?” Infernum stands here for the Saxon hellia.18 So also in Saxo’s story of Hadding’s visit to the Underworld, which has much in common with Norse conceptions, warriors are found there.19

Conversely even some of those who did not die in battle went to Odin in Valhall, e.g., king Vanland, killed by a Mara, and king Halfdan, who died in bed. These are said to have gone to Odin, though Halfdan was bidden to go to him by Loki’s daughter, i.e., Hel.20


With the early conception of Hel as the general home of the dead, stands the equally early, if not earlier, conception of the dead living on in their barrows or burial-mounds, as well as that of their being within hills. The barrow or group of barrows was in itself a small Underworld. In primitive thought this passed over to the conception of a hollow region under the earth or in the hill where the barrows were set, while yet the grave or barrow was thought to be the dead man’s abode. Hel, the hollow



This double Giant’s Chamber or Jættestue is on the Island of Möen in the Baltic. It is a large chambered borrow or tumulus of the Stone Age, with a double entrance and double interior chamber.


place, was thus an extension of the barrow where the dead feasted, occupied themselves with the welfare of their kindred, and where their presence in these barrows was a blessing to the neighbourhood.21

The dead were said “to die into the hill,” and this belief with its corollary that they still lived in grave, barrow, or hill is decidedly primitive. Dead Norsemen were vigorously alive in their barrows. The Eyrbyggja-saga tells how Thorstein’s shepherd saw the hill on the north side of Helga-fell open. Fires blazed in it: the clatter of ale-horns was heard. Words of welcome were spoken to Thorstein and his companions, who had just been drowned at sea, and those already in the hill said that he would sit in the high seat with his father.22 A good example of the dead alive in their barrow is found in Helgi Hundingsbana, though it is combined with the Valhall conception. A hill was raised for Helgi and he went to Valhall. But at night one of Sigrun’s maidens saw him ride with many men to the hill. She told this to Sigrun who went to see him and rejoiced at the reunion. Sigrun kissed him. His hair was covered with frost, his body damp with the dew of death. Helgi told her that her tears caused this dew, each tear falling like blood on his breast. Sorrow will now be forgotten. “Now in the mound our brides we hold, the heroes’ wives by their dead husbands” — as if his followers were also visited by their living wives. Sigrun made ready a bed and said: “I will make thee rest in my arms as once I did when you lived.” So they rested until Helgi had to ride back to Valhall ere the cock woke the warrior throng there.23 Two beliefs are illustrated in this episode, besides that of the dead living in their barrow, viz., that excessive tears of mourners harm the dead, and that the dead can rejoin the living for a time — both wide-spread conceptions.

Stories in the Sagas show that the forgotten dead in ancient barrows would reveal themselves to the living; that the dead resented any desecration of their barrows, and that they would make known to the living any annoyance caused them, e.g., by a


thrall buried beside them.24 The Hervarar-saga tells how Angantyr was buried with the famous sword Tyrfing, his eleven brothers being buried in as many mounds beside his own. His daughter Hervor, who had taken to Viking ways, visited the barrows in order to obtain the sword. She rode through the fire which burned around them, and by incantations forced her father to speak. In spite of his trying to send her away and telling her that the sword, lying beneath him surrounded by fire, would bring destruction with it, she still persisted, and now it came forth from the barrow of itself.25 Another story describes a visit paid by Thorstan to a barrow at the invitation of a dead man. In it were this man, Bryniar, and eleven men, besides other eleven, companions of Ord. Bryniar and his men had to give treasure to Ord, but their store was running short. Thorstan, when asked by Ord for a gift, held out his axe, and when Ord would have taken it, he cut off his arm. A general fight between the two groups of the dead now began. Ord and his men were slain, and Bryniar gave Thorstan Ord’s ring which, laid beneath a dumb person’s tongue, would make him speak. He also told Thorstan that he would change his faith, which they, the barrow-folk, could not do, for they were earth-dwellers or ghosts.26 The Njals-saga tells how Gunnar’s barrow was seen open with lights burning in it, and how he recited lines in an audible voice. His face was joyous. Yet immediately after, his son Hogni, who had witnessed this, speaks of Gunnar’s going to Valhall.27

The barrow-dweller, the haug-bui or “barrow-wight,” was sometimes troublesome to the living, as many stories in the Sagas show. Grettir saw a fire in the barrow of Karr who haunted the region near. He broke open the barrow and was removing its treasure, when Karr attacked him. After a struggle Grettir cut off Karr’s head and placed it at his thigh — a recognized way of laying such substantial ghosts.28 Another story in the Grettis-saga relates to the godless Glam who was slain by a spirit, and now began to haunt the farm on which he


had been a shepherd, riding on the roofs and nearly breaking them in. The hauntings continued for two winters. People who saw Glam went mad; others were killed; cattle were destroyed; farms were burned. After a terrific fight Grettir slew Glam, cutting off his head and placing it at his thigh. The body was then burned and the ashes buried deep.29

In other stories such substantial ghosts do immense harm, and even after their bodies have been burned, their vitality continues through the ashes. Thus a cow licked a stone on which the ashes of the vicious ghost of Thorolf had lain, and its calf continued the harm done by the ghost. Sometimes holy water and the saying of Mass, as well as a doom pronounced against the tormenting dead, were necessary before their hauntings ceased. While the “ghost” haunted, its body was undecayed. These animated corpses, for they can hardly be called ghosts, resemble vampires, for the quelling of which similar rites of riddance were observed — cutting off the head, impaling, burning, and scattering the ashes.30 Many stories describe fights with the barrow-wight by a hero bold enough to invade the barrow and try to remove the treasure contained in it. Saxo gives such a story. Asmund and Asvitus had promised to die with each other. Asvitus died first and Asmund was buried alive with him. Soon after, the barrow was broken open, and Asmund came forth, ghastly and bleeding, for Asvitus had eaten his horse and dog and then attacked his friend, who, however, had been able to cut off his head and impale his body with a stake.31

All the dead did not act in these ways. They were helpful and interested in their descendants, and would appear to give information on different matters. Hence some cult was paid to the dead at their barrows or at the natural hillocks into which they were supposed to have died. The greater or more beloved they were, so much the more reverence was shown them. Jordanes says of the Goths that they regarded dead chiefs as ansis or semi-deos. Adam of Bremen speaks of the cult of dead men who had performed mighty deeds, and cites the Vita S. Anskarii


which shows how the Swedes had neglected the gods through the coming of Christianity. Through a certain man they complained of this and said that if the Swedes desired more gods, they might worship their former king Eirik, who would now become one of the gods. A temple was therefore erected in his honour, and sacrifices offered to him. The Indiculus Superstitionum shows that the dead were regarded as holy and worshipful.32 The Sagas give several examples of the worship of popular or great persons when dead, and of the sacrifices paid to them.33 The euhemerized accounts of the gods also show how they, as supposed mortals, were deified and worshipped after their deaths.

In Iceland, hillocks or hills were believed to be abodes of the dead, especially one near the family dwelling, on which we may suppose the barrows to have been made.34 The family barrow or barrows were usually beside the dwelling. The living believed that they would “die into the hill.” One of the early settlers in Iceland, Thorolf, in reverence for the hill on the ness to which his high-seat pillars had floated, and which was near his homestead, called it Helga-fell, “Holy fell.” He would allow no one to pray to it unwashed; it must not be defiled; and no living thing could be destroyed on it or brought from it to die. Things and Dooms were held on it, and Thorolf believed that he would die into it. On one occasion, as we have seen, it was found open and the dead were present in it. Another example is that of the place where the lady Aud was buried, one of several hillocks on which she had raised crosses. Her kinsmen, falling into heathenism, made it a place of worship and sacrifice, and believed that they died into these hills. Ari, the earliest chronicler, says that Selthorir and his kinsmen died into Thori’s hill.35

The “memory-toast” was one drunk to kinsmen in their barrows.36 The erfi or erfiöl was a feast in honour of the dead, e.g., the head of a house, at which many guests were present and much ale drunk in memory and honour of the departed. The



Tumulus of the later Bronze Age at Refsnaes, Seeland, made of stones covered with earth. It contains urns with stone cists.


heir then occupied the high-seat for the first time.37 These funeral feasts for the dead are also described by Saxo.38 The sacrifices at Aud’s hill were for her benefit, and the dead were said to be present even visibly at their own funeral feasts.39

Evidence of this cult of the dead is seen in the denunciations of the Church through canons of Synods and Councils in the Teutonic area, as elsewhere.40

The dead were also enquired of at their mounds regarding the future, as Odin did regarding Balder, and Svipdag of his mother Groa.41 In Harbardsljod Harbard says that he had learned the words spoken to Thor from the old men who dwell in “the grave-hills of home,” i.e., ancestral grave-hills. Thor replies that he is giving a fine name to cairns when he describes them thus. Cairns, as distinct from barrows, were piled over criminals. What Harbard had learned had been communicated by wicked spirits.42 A shepherd slept on a mound in hope of composing a dirge in honour of its occupant Thorleif, but could get no further than “Here lies a skald.” One night the mound opened, and a stately man emerged, who told the shepherd that if he could remember a poem of eight lines which he would recite to him, he would become a poet. On awaking, he recalled the lines and became a famous skald.43 Saxo tells how the giantess Hardgrep, desiring to know the future, made Hadding place a wooden slip engraved with runes beneath a dead man’s tongue. He then uttered a prophecy.44 Odin knew a spell which would make a hanged man talk, perhaps the valgaldr by which he awakened the dead seeress in Baldrs Draumar.45

There is no example in the Eddas of the dead appearing in dreams to the living to warn them or to foretell the future. In Atlamal dead women were seen in a dream by Glaumvor seeking and calling her husband Gunnar to come quickly to their benches. They were apparently his kinsfolk, desiring his presence in the Other World.46 The belief that the dead communicated with the living through dreams was a common one, and Saxo gives an example of it. Hadding’s dead wife appeared to


him foretelling his death by his daughter’s instigation, and, now forewarned, he was able to prevent this.47

The dead ancestor was sometimes thought to dwell in a particular stone. In the Cristne-saga Codran and his kin are said to have worshipped at a stone in which their ancestor dwelt. He told Codran the future and of what he should beware. A bishop sprinkled the stone with holy water, and the ancestor complained to Codran that he and his children were being driven from their home by hot water. After a second sprinkling he appeared, dark and evil of face, beseeching Codran to drive away the bishop. After a third sprinkling, his appearance was lamentable. Codran told him that he had worshipped him as a strong god, but, as he had proved false and weak, he would now become a Christian.48 A stone at which Thorstan worshipped and from which a voice was heard foretelling his death, was probably also a spirit stone.49

In spite of the power of the barrow-wight, men still sought in burial-mounds for treasure, and curses against such persons are known on grave-stones. With the coming of Christianity the barrow-wight became more or less demoniac, and later stories of encounters of living and dead are of a darker kind.

All this belief of the dead living in their graves, barrows, or hills, or in stones, may seem to conflict with the belief in Hel, still more with that in the heavenly Valhall. But all religions and mythologies show how apparently contradictory beliefs can be held concurrently.


The belief in Hel is as prominent as the Valhall belief in the Poetic Edda. Snorri and the skalds give it more emphasis, and it was a profound future hope to warriors in the Viking age, giving them courage in conflict and confidence that, if slain, Odin would receive them.


Valhall, “Hall of the slain,” “Hropt’s (Odin’s) battle-hall,” stands gold-bright and wide in Gladsheim, “Abode of joy,” a heavenly place. It is Odin’s favourite abode. Spears are its rafters, shields its roof, its benches are strewn with corslets. A wolf hangs by its western door, over it hovers an eagle (perhaps carved figures above the door). The cook Andhrimnir cooks the boar Sæhrimnir in the cauldron Eldhrimnir, as food for dead warriors, though few know on what they feast. Odin’s wolves sit beside him. The river Thund surrounds Valhall and in it joyously swims “Thjodvitnir’s fish,” the sun. The fallen find it hard to wade through this stream. Valgrind is the outer gate of Valhall, and behind it are five hundred and forty doors in the wall. Through each door eight hundred warriors will go to fight the Fenris-wolf at the Doom of the gods. There is unfailing mead for the heroes, to whom the Valkyries bring it. Each day the warriors or Einherjar go forth. to fight, felling each other, but they are magically healed by nightfall, when they feast. They are waked each morning by the cock Gollin-kambi, “Gold-comb.”50

Some of these details from Grimnismal and Vafthrudnismal require explanation. The river Thund may be the sky in which the sun, the fish to be swallowed by the mighty wolf (Thjodvitnir), runs its course, or perhaps it is the ocean surrounding Midgard, in which is the Midgard-serpent. The three names, Andhrimnir, “Sooty-face,” Eldhrimnir, “Sooty-with-fire,” and Sæhrimnir, “the Blackened,” are believed by R. M. Meyer to be formulæ of a riddle: — “Sooty-face seethes the Blackened in Sooty-with-fire;” the answer being “the cook in Valhall seethes the boar in a cauldron.”51

Snorri repeats this description of Valhall, with additions. The host of Einherjar in Valhall will not be too great in the day of the gods’ need. The boar’s flesh suffices for all, and though killed and eaten, he is alive again each evening. Something better than water is given to the warriors who have bought their place in Valhall so dearly. From the udders of the goat Heidrun


flows mead enough to fill a tun daily, and all the Einherjar could become drunk from it. When Gylfi (Gangleri) arrived in Asgard, he saw a hall with many people, gaming, drinking, or fighting. This was evidently Valhall. Snorri also says that in Valhall swords were used instead of fire, just as gold gave light in Ægir’s hall.52 Odin appoints dead warriors to Valhall and Vingolf (not mentioned in the poems). Elsewhere in Snorri Vingolf is the abode of goddesses, close by Gladsheim. Warriors may have shared in this abode of goddesses, for Freyja is said to decree who shall have seats in her hall Sessrumnir in Folkvang. She chooses half of the dead, Odin the other. Sessrumnir may be the equivalent of Vingolf, the meaning of which is variously given as “Friend-hall,” “Wine-hall,” and “Hall of the beloved,” where Valkyries serve the warriors.53 In the Lexicon Mythologicum the dying Hadding’s words are given. He speaks of the Valkyries coming to him and says that he will go to Vingolf and drink beer with the Einherjar.54

The Einherj ar were outstanding warriors, fallen in fight, and chosen for Valhall by the Valkyries. They were Odin’s osksynir, “wish-sons” or “adopted sons,” and Odin himself was Valfather, “Father of the slain.” They are assembled in Valhall partly to aid the gods in their day of need, when they will ride forth with them to battle, though it is not known when the grey Wolf (the Fenris-wolf) will come, and many as they are, their number will seem small enough in that time.55 While it is true that all warriors did not go to Valhall and some went there who were not warriors, the view of the skalds was that it was exclusively for brave and noble fighters, men of high birth, heroes, freemen. This is reflected in one of the Bjarka songs in Saxo. The poet says: “No humble and obscure race, no low-born ones, no base souls are Pluto’s prey, but he weaves the fate of the mighty and fills Phlegethon with noble shapes.” Pluto stands for Odin, Phlegethon for Valhall. So in Harbardsljod the noble who fall in battle are said to go to Odin, while Thor has


the thralls. Yet Thor himself is called “Einhere” in Lokasenna.56

In the Eiriksmal and Hakonarmal (tenth century), already cited, we have seen how the Valkyries were sent forth to bring the heroes to Valhall. In the former Sigmund and Sinfjotli are bidden by Odin to go out and welcome Eirik and those who follow him; in the latter Hermod and Bragi are sent to greet Hakon. Sigmund asked why Odin looked so much for Eirik’s coming, and was told that he was such a mighty warrior. He died in fight because the gods need such as he against the day of the Wolf’s coming. Hakon said that he mistrusted Odin because he had been slain; but Bragi told him that now the Einherjar will toast him and he will drink ale with the gods.57

The Valhall belief had entered deeply into the Viking mind, as is seen in the phrase used of a hero fallen in combat with another — “to show him the way to Valhall.” Such heroes would wish each other a journey to Valhall before fighting. When a warrior was buried he was dedicated to Valhall in the funeral oration.58

How did the conception of the heavenly Valhall arise in Scandinavia? As Odin was father of the slain, lord of the Einherjar, and lord of ghosts (drauga drottinn),59 so he had once been god of the dead in general. When he came to be regarded as dwelling in the sky, the abode of the dead or, at least, of those more directly associated with him, was also transferred there. Valhall in Heaven was thus an extension of the Underworld or of an abode of warriors within a hill. Valhall with its surrounding stream, wall, gate and doors, and its hall, is a replica of Hel. We have seen that the dead were supposed to go into hills regarded as sacred. Now certain hills in Scandinavia are called “hills of the dead” (Dødeberg, Dødemandsbjœrge), and some Icelandic and Swedish hills bear the name Valhall.60 Odin was connected with hills which bear his name in Germany and Scandinavia, like “Sigtyr’s mountain” in Atlakvitha.


He was “the Man of the mountain,” and “the god of the fells” (Fjallgautr).61 Were these hollow hills into which the dead entered? With some such hills the Wild Hunt was linked, emerging from them and returning to them, and the dead took part in the Hunt.62 The numerous legends of kings or heroes sleeping in hills with their followers are also in point here. The king or hero is an earlier deity, Wodan or some other.63 Charlemagne’s army fought a battle at the foot of the Odenberg in Hesse. At night the hill opened, king and soldiers entered, and then it closed upon them. Every seven or every hundred years they come forth in battle-array and after a time re-enter the hill. Other legends of armed men coming out of hills, fighting, and re-entering them, are known from medieval times.64 The continual fighting of dead warriors, not in Valhall, is an early belief enshrined in folk-tradition. It is exemplified in the story of the Hjadnings’ strife in its various forms. Snorri gives one version of this and connects it with Hoy in Orkney. The kings Hogni and Hedin fought because Hedin had carried off Hild, Hogni’s daughter. They and their men fought all day, and at night Hild resuscitated the dead. They renewed the fight next day, and all who fell turned to stone. But they rose up armed in the morning and fought again. “In songs it is said that the Hjadnings will fight thus till the Doom of the gods.” This continual fight is also mentioned in Bragi’s poem, Ragnarsdrapa (ninth century). The story is also attached to the Brisinga-men myth, Freyja receiving back the necklace on condition that she should cause two kings and their armies to fight until a Christian ended the strife. The resuscitation theme occurs here also, and the fight continues for one hundred and forty-three years until one of Olaf Tryggvason’s men agrees to kill all the warriors and so release them from their doom. Another version of the story is given briefly by Saxo. Hilda is said to have longed so ardently for Hedin, that after he and Hogni had slain each other, she resuscitated them by her spells in order to renew the fight.65 Other legends deal with a similar theme, and Saxo in one of his



The upper picture shows Helga-fell, “Holy Fell” or “Holy Mountain,” in Western Iceland, with the farm of the same name beneath it to the right. The hill was that into which the dead died, and was held to be most sacred. The idea that it was the abode of the dead may have arisen from the form of the hill, like a house with a great gate. From W. G. Collingwood, Sagasteads of Iceland. See p. 310. The lower picture is that of a sacred birch-tree and mound near the farm of Slinde at Sogn, West Norway. No one might cut its branches and at the Christmas festival ale was poured over its roots by every member of the family. The tree fell in 1874. From a painting by Thomas Fearnley, 1840. See p. 203.


stories of a visit to the Underworld shows us dead warriors fighting there.66

Valhall might thus be regarded as an Underworld abode of warriors transferred to Heaven as a result of Odin’s growing importance in the Viking age. The warriors there awaited the final assault of demoniac powers. Meanwhile they fought, feasted, and caroused, as the dead feasted in Helga-fell. It is also significant that valhall is the name applied to the hall where Atli and his warriors drank wine.67 Apparently fighting as an occupation after death was not a primitive belief, for the earliest tombs do not contain armour and weapons.68

Whatever the origin of the Valhall belief may be, it was not the only conception of Other World life entertained by the Northmen. It is quite possible that in earlier times the state of the dead. was not definitely formulated in Teutonic belief. In later times different beliefs arose and some of these were held simultaneously. The dead active in their barrows are also linked with Valhall, as the Helgi poem and the reference to Gunnar in the Njals-saga show. So also, according to Thjodolf the skald, Halfdan, who died in his bed, was bidden to the Thing of Odin (Valhall) by “Hvedrung’s maiden,” i.e., Hel, for Hvedrung is Loki.69 In the Helgi poem, as Niedner puts it, the Valhall belief has been superimposed on an older tradition of Hel or of the dead living in their barrows.70


The belief in the punishment of certain crimes after death is found among savage and barbaric peoples,71 and may quite well have been held by the Teutons. It is indeed spoken of in the Eddas, but the question of Christian influence has to be considered.

Snorri speaks of the future lot as dependent on the nature of the death — a common and primitive conception. Warriors went to Valhall, those dying of sickness or old age to Hel, the drowned to Ran, etc.72 But he also says that All-father gave


man a spirit which is immortal. All men shall live; the righteous with him in Gimle, evil men in Hel and thence to Niflhel, in the ninth world.73 This contradicts the other passage, and suggests that Hel is an evil place. In a third passage, already cited, Snorri makes Hel a place of cold, famine, and disease.74

Christian ideas seem to have obtruded themselves — that of man’s immortal soul, of the righteous in Gimle or Heaven, of the wicked in Hel and Niflhel. Snorri seems to have been in error in making Hel and Niflhel different places: elsewhere Niflhel is equivalent to Hel,75 and the earlier sources (e.g., the Eddic poems) do not suggest that Hel is an evil place of misery.

These passages tell of man’s fate after death. But Snorri also describes the places allotted to men at the renewal of the world. There will be many good and many evil abodes. Best will it be to exist in Gimle, where will be abundance of drink for those who like it in the hall called Brimir, which is in Okolnir. A good hall is that which stands in Nidafells, made of red gold, and called Sindri. In these the good and pure in heart shall dwell. Gimle is further described as fairest of all halls, brighter than the sun, at the south end of Heaven. When Heaven and earth have departed, it shall continue, and the good shall dwell in it. It is believed to be in the third Heaven, Vidblainn, and so invulnerable against the fires of Surt. On Nastrand, “Corpsestrand,” is a great and evil hall, its doors facing north. All the snake-heads turn into it and spurt venom, so that it runs in two rivers along the hall. Perjurers and murderers wade these rivers. In Hvergelmir it is worse, for there the cursed snake tears dead men’s corpses.76

In this account there seems to be a mingling of pagan and Christian beliefs, and some misunderstanding of his sources by Snorri. In Voluspa Gimle is a hill on which the hall stands:

“A hall I saw, fairer than the sun,
Decked with gold, on Gimle’s heights,
There shall dwell true hosts
And enjoy happiness never to end.”


Even this stanza is suspect of Christian influence. In Voluspa also Brimir’s hall has no connexion with the lot of the righteous dead; while Sindri is the name of a dwarf, not of a hall:

“In the north stood on Nidafells
A hall of gold for Sindri’s people;
On Okolnir another hall stood,
The beer-hall of the giant Brimir.”

Sindri’s people are dwarfs. The next stanzas describe a place of punishment, which Snorri connects with life after the Doom of the gods. But, unless their position in Voluspa is misplaced, this must be a present place of punishment, not one in the renewed world

“A hall I saw stand far from the sun,
On Nastrand, its doors facing the North;
Venom streams down from the smoke-hole,
For serpents are winding round the walls.

There I saw wading through rivers wild
Oath-breakers and murderers
[And such as entice other men’s wives];
There sucked Nidhogg the dead
And the wolf tore men.”

The composition of this second verse is doubtful. Line three may be interpolated; lines four and five may belong to a stanza with no reference to punishments for sin after death. According to Grimnismal the dragon Nidhogg gnaws the root of Yggdrasil. Snorri says that the dragon gnaws that root which is over Niflheim and below which is Hvergelmir, a well in Hel. In the concluding stanza of Voluspa, possibly also interpolated or out of its proper place, the dragon Nidhogg comes flying from Nidafells bearing the bodies of men on his wings.80

That perjurers, murderers, and adulterers were punished after death would be in keeping with Teutonic ideas of the enormity of these crimes, and the punishments meted out in life for committing them. In Sigrdrifumal an evil fate is said to await the perjurer; and in Reginsmal Andvari says that perjurers will suffer long, wading through Vadgelmir’s waters.


This river, not mentioned elsewhere, may be one of those which Voluspa assigns to oath-breakers as a punishment, and which are in Hel or on its confines.81

Snorri’s reference to All-father, who is existing after the Doom of the gods, conflicts with the belief in Odin as All-father, slain at this final catastrophe. He has been influenced by his belief in the Christian God. Gimle, “Gem-lee” or “Gem-roof,” is possibly a reminiscence of the Heavenly Jerusalem, the city of gold and gems, as described in the Book of Revelation.


Stories of visits to the Other World, preserved by Saxo and in some of the Sagas, contain reminiscences of pagan beliefs. In their present form they belong to the twelfth and fourteenth centuries. They tell how men went to seek Odainsakr, “the Acre of the Not-dead,” and Jörd lifanda Manna, “the Land of living Men,” in the East or North, and apparently underground.

One winter day Hadding, a mythic king of Denmark, saw a woman rise out of the floor with hemlocks in her hand. He desired to know where such plants grew in winter, and, wrapping him in her mantle, she drew him underground through a dark cloud, along a worn path, to a place where were richly clad nobles, and then to sunny regions where the plants grew. A river, full of whirling missiles and crossed by a bridge, was passed, and on the other side two armies were fighting. The warriors thus showed the manner of their past life and of their death. A great wall barred further advance, but the woman wrung off the head of a cock and flung it over the wall, when the bird came to life again. Hadding now returned home, apparently by sea.82

This story must have been known in the tenth century, for “Hadding’s land,” the Other World, is spoken of in the second Gudrun poem. The region beyond the wall is probably the Odainsakr of other stories. The fighting warriors resemble the



The upper illustration is that of a holy well at Tisvilde, north coast of Seeland, for long the most famous of Danish wells and still frequented for healing. It is called S. Helen’s Well, but the name Tisvilde suggests that it may once have been sacred to Tyr. From a photograph in the Copenhagen collection of folk-lore. The lower illustration shows the great royal barrows at Upsala. The church in the background probably stands on the site of the temple of Upsala. There are remains of a holy well in the churchyard. The barrows were supposed to be those of ancient legendary kings.


Einherjar in Valhall, but they may be a reminiscence of its more primitive aspect, underground or within a hill. The river with missiles resembles the river Slid in Voluspa, full of swords and daggers, one of several rivers which run in Hel, according to Grimnismal. Its bridge recalls the Gjoll-bridge. The influence of Irish stories of Elysium, to which visitants with a magic branch or apple invite mortals, may be seen in this story.83

Saxo also tells of the visit of Gorm, king of Denmark, to Geirrod’s abode, over ocean, down to Chaos, to a region of darkness. Thorkill acted as guide to the party, and when land was reached, he bade them kill no more cattle than sufficed for their needs, lest the guardian gods of the place (Land-vættir?) should not let them depart. This counsel was disregarded and three men had to be surrendered to the giants who beset them. They now sailed to a region of eternal cold, with trackless forests. Gudmund warned all on no account to speak. A giant-like man, Gudmund, brother of Geirrod, met them and conducted them past a river, on the other side of which were monsters, to his abode. Here Thorkill and the others refrained from food and from the love of the beautiful women of the place, for the one would cause oblivion and they would have to dwell with monsters, while the other would cause madness. Four men succumbed to the women’s charms, and met this fate. Gudmund tried to entice Gorm with the delicious fruits of his garden, but, warned by Thorkill, he refused them. Gudmund now took the visitors over the river to a gloomy town, guarded by dogs and peopled by phantoms. Here was Geirrod’s dwelling, filthy, swarming with snakes, its iron seats full of phantasmal monsters. Geirrod and his daughters were seen just as they had been overcome by Thor. In another place three of the party took some of its treasure and were horribly punished. In another room Thorkill’s self-restraint was forgotten at sight of a beautiful mantle. The inhabitants attacked the voyagers, and all but twenty perished. These were ferried over the river by Gudmund and returned home.84


This story combines Polar travel with incidents of imaginary journeys. Gudmund appears in other tales. In the Hervararsaga he is a king in Jötunheim, and dwells in Glasisvellir, “glittering Plains.” He is wise and mighty, and he and his men live for generations. The heathen believed that Odainsakr was in his realm and that whoever went there cast off sickness and age and became immortal. After his death he was worshipped as a god.85 In other sagas Gudmund rules Glasisvellir and is skilled in magic, but in one of these his land is tributary to Jötunheim, ruled by Geirrod, who meets his death by the magic power of Thorstein.86 The Story of Olaf Tryggvason tells how Helgi Thoreson met twelve maidens in the far north, one of whom was Gudmund’s daughter, Ingibjorg, with whom he stayed three days. In the sequel when, by Olaf’s prayers, she could not keep him, she put out his eyes lest the daughters of Norway should love him.87

In Eirik Vidforlas-saga, Eirik reached Odainsakr by being swallowed by a dragon. It was a place of great beauty, with a tower suspended in the air and reached by a ladder. There Eirik and his companions found delicious food and wine and slept in splendid beds. A beautiful youth told Eirik in his sleep that this was Odainsakr, and Jörd lifanda Manna, and that it was near Paradise.88

Gudmund’s is an Elysian region, but has dangers incurred through eating its fruits or loving its women. These are perhaps made darker by Christian redactors or authors of the stories. By analogy with Irish Elysian tales, the danger was that, by eating the fruit of the land or through love of its women, the visitor became bound to the region or, when he left it, found that time had lapsed as in a dream. This food-tabu — the danger of eating the food of gods, fairies, the dead, etc., is of widespread occurrence.89

Glasisvellir, Odainsakr, and Jörd lifanda Manna are Elysian wonder-lands, such as most races have imagined. But there may have been influence from Irish Elysium stories, notably The


Voyage of Bran, in which some of the voyagers come to grief by doing what they were advised not to do.90 The tales, however, contain several points of contact with native beliefs regarding the region of the dead, e.g., rivers crossed by a bridge, dead men fighting, the mysterious region beyond the river, perhaps the equivalent of Hel. Geirrod’s realm is more repulsive in Saxo’s tale than in the Eddic myth of Thor and Geirrod, and here we may see the influence of Christian visions of Hell, though it preserves some features of the Eddic Nastrand with its snakes and venom, and even of Valhall, for its roof is made of spear-heads. Rydberg identified Gudmund with Mimir; and Odainsakr, the walled place in the Hadding story, and the tower in the Eirik story, with Mimir’s grove where Lif and Lifthrasir, progenitors of the new race of men, are preserved.91 To them the title “living men” might be appropriate. But more likely the names of this mysterious land were suggested to the Northmen by contact with the Celtic people of Britain and Ireland, in whose myths Elysium bore such names as “Land of the Living,” Mag Mell or “The Pleasant Plain,” and Tir na n-Og, The Land of Youth.”