The Dead of Winter

This time of year, when it’s cold and dark, always makes me think of the ancestors and of all the people I would love to have even one last time gathered round a fire with, talking, laughing, telling stories, singing, drinking mead.

The Vikings had similar feelings around Yuletide – it was the time of the wild hunt where ghostly riders chased souls through the skies. It included Modranicht, a time to honour the disir, and it was the time draugr were most likely to be encountered by anyone walking alone at night.

Winter has always been the time of year with the highest mortality rate, and this year is shaping up to be worse than most, just this week I have seen several reports of people I knew online through Viking related groups having died. This has been met each time with a flurry of responses along the lines of “we’ll drink together again in Valhalla” but will we?

In the sagas we are told that Valhalla is a majestic hall in Asgard where Odin houses his adopted sons the Einherjar. The Einherjar are often described as the best of warriors, but this isn’t necessarily the case. That’s not to say they aren’t fine warriors – the Valkyries selected only the best of the slain after a battle, but logically wouldn’t the best warriors win the battles and survive? More definitively, once selected by the Valkyries Freyja chooses half the warriors to join her in Fólkvangr and only those she doesn’t want go to Valhalla. Admittedly we aren’t told what criteria Freyja uses to make her selection, she is also associated with love and sex after all so it may be a very different prowess she is interested in, but however they are picked it’s likely some of her half are better warriors than some of Odin’s half.

Aside from those the Valkyries select we know there are other ways of entering Valhalla – There are various accounts of Kings going to Valhalla after their deaths, in the Ynglinga saga we are told that Vanlandi died in his sleep crushed by a witch and yet his soul went to Valhalla. Hákonarmál tells the tale of King Haakon Haraldsson who also died in his bed, although he had been wounded in an earlier battle his soul also goes to Valhalla, and Fagrskinna tells of Erik Bloodaxe making his way to Valhalla with five other kings and being welcomed by Odin and his entourage. It’s not just Valhalla that receives other souls. In Egils saga, his daughter Þorgerðr (Thorgerd) says she will starve herself to death and not eat again until she is with Freyja in her hall.

I’m not sure I would want to end up in Valhalla or Fólkvangr, in both of those places the dead spend every day fighting and are brought back to life to spend the evening feasting. Every day the same, every night the same. Much as I love a viking feast I wouldn’t want to eat the same roast boar every day and drink the same mead, maybe I’m too English but eternity without a cup of tea and a piece of cake really wouldn’t suit me. Besides, surely the main benefit of eternal life is finally being able to catch up with all the books unread, and the games unplayed. So are there other options? Well yes, Helheim being the obvious one. Hel ruled over nine worlds not just one so while certain areas of Helheim were reserved for the evil people other areas sound a lot more pleasant, Baldr was welcomed with a great feast and treated with great honour. You didn’t have to be a God to have a happy afterlife, the road to Hel was guarded by a giant wolf called Garmr, those who had been kind during their lives and looked after the poor would find they had Hel-cakes when they arrived at Hel. This was for Garmr, those who fed him well were allowed into the nicer places where they could enjoy an afterlife finer than their actual life had been, with eating, drinking, carousing, sleeping and doing all the things the living enjoyed.

We know that Hel didn’t receive all of the dead, those who died at sea could be claimed by Ran and there is a reference to a hunter having gone ‘to join Ullr’ so perhaps all the Gods could claim the souls of their devotees – then skilled crafters could join Frigg in Fensalir, skalds could join Saga in Sökkvabekkr, or sit with Bragi in his hall, law makers might join Forsetti and Baldur in Glitnir, other folk may go to Heimdall in Himingbjorg.

I’m not sure any of those halls would want me, but there is another option- Helgafjell, the sacred mountain. This was said to be a place of warmth and merriment where the dead could be reunited with their loved ones. There is an actual mountain called Helgafjell in Iceland, it has a small temple to Thor and looks like a lovely place. I think it unlikely that Helgafjell in the stories referred to this specific mountain, there must have been lots of mountains the nearby communities considered sacred. Even today the top of a mountain is an almost magical place where you feel the elements more keenly and can look over normal life far far below, what an excellent place to spend eternity.

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