The view honored by our ancestors on death is the not the easiest subject to explore. Apart from the abundant descriptions of life in Valhalla, few indications survive. Furthermore, it isn’t always easy to tell which part of the description are of Christian origin and which are authentic Germanic/Norse views. In what follows we will explore the elements that are available and make some calculated guesses.
Multiple classes, mupltiple beliefs
Rig rode around the world and slept in 3 houses, in each of these houses the wife got pregnant, and thus the 3 classes of society were created. In reality these classes were hard to escape. If you were born a thrall, you most likely would remain so untill your death.
Thus, I consider it essentiel to differentiate between the beliefs of the distinct classes. Even though essentielly they sprang from the same religion, the expectations of afterlife were quite different, based upon their personel experiences in life and their moral expectations.
First of all we must realise that the descriptions of Valhalla sprang from the images honoured by the superior classes. The expectations on death and afterlife as experienced by a farmer or fishermen would be quite different. And these are the views that would be those that were held by the majority of the population.
They werent hoping for an honorable death in battle, nor hoping to join the Gods in Walhalla, as did the members of the “jungmanschafte” in the great halls, serving a local potentate. They didn’t want people dying in the prime of their life. All strong and young people were needed in order to grow enough food to nourish the entire population. Everyone that could work should work and be productive.
In the Havamal it is said:
The lame man rides a horse,
the one-armed man drives the herd,
the deaf man fights and is useful;
it is better to be blind
no-one is helped by a corpse.
Yet these beliefs are far less accessable to us then those of the minoritarian upper classes, brought to us by the sagas. As the skalds mainly worked for the warrior cast, this could of course be expected.
Another point of attention is the fact that no true priestly class existed. A lokal potentate would serve as high priest (Godi) for his own community. Inevitable, this would lead to a strong coloration of the religious beliefs by the views held by that potentate. This situation would also assure that several deviating traditions or views on religion and afterlife would be held throughout the Germanic/Norse world.
As an illustration, we only need to look at the version given on the rivalry between Baldr and Hodr. The classical tale comes to us from the traditional sagas, with their mainly Norse, Icelandic origins and the version presents to us by Saxo Gramaticus. Though his views can be colored by his Christian point of view, it is hard to believe he just made it up and though based upon the same characters and the same basic conflict, the stories themselves are quite distinct.
Should a central hierarchical class of priests have existed, such as the Celtic druids, the general beliefs would have been much more coherent. Caesar reports that the Celtic tribes even sent their students of druidism to Britannia because they felt the knowledge was more purely preserved in that country.
There may have been quite important regional differences due to the proximity and influences of neighbouring societies, giving rise to yet stronger regional differences. Peoples living on the Celtic border could easily have had another disposition to death then those that had direct contact with the Sami. The first group might have been inclined to reincarnation, whilst the second might feel an attraction to the more sjamanistic beliefs.
Interestingly enough, this situation of disbursement endures up to present date, since almost any Asatru kindred has its own traditions and lore distinct of that of their comrades in other parts of the world.
Another consideration is that nobody can claim that our ancestors believes remained unchanged, constant and stable from their prime origins in the neolitic societies up to the viking age.
In comparison, who would dare to proclaim that the Christian belief of our contempories is still the same belief that was practices 500 years ago, and as we all know the differences between catholic dogma and protestantism are equally important.
We don’t need to go that far back in time in order to find a completely different social attitude toward religion. In the sixties, Westerners were still converting Africans to Christianity. This is almost unthinkable in the present day. When encountering representatifs of other religions who still try to convert people most of the present Westerners would react appalled.
Death in a farmer community
Let us continue now by looking at the silent majority of people in the Germanic/Norse societies. How would a farmer in the year 600 look upon death. As a matter of comparison, how does a modern day farming community or a farmer community from -say- 60 years ago look upon death?
In daily life death would be ever present and be a source for regeneration. A farmer must clearly recognise that all things die and are -so to say- recycled in order to nourish newcommers. That is the function of dunging the fields. You take that what has died and invest it into new life.
As the farmer would notice nothing is lost during the process, he would, ploughing silently his fields in the long summer hours, no doubt also wonder whether something would remain of his spirit/essential being after death. He knows what happens to his body. It will decay and feed new life, but what of the untouchable, the spirit, his life essence, his personality?
Looking at my own grandparents, their friends and relatives, farming in the Flemish “Kempen” what always struck me is the very clear distinction between men and women.
The men seem more inclined toward a sober, practical approach to all things relating to death. They make arrangements for the coffin, contact the priest in order to get the most pompous funeral the village ever saw, they assure that the death meal won’ t ashame the family in face of the next of kin and neighbours. They would also discuss the inheritance and most important of all, they would not show emotion, but laugh on events that occurred in the life of the deceiced while savouring several strong ales.
This sobering, very practical approach of farmers toward death and religion in general is also evidences in the Havamal. Very stricking are:
It is better not to sacrifice at all then to sacrifice to much. In other words, don’t gamble upon divine support because if it doesn’t work, you will have obliterated something that might have gotten you through winter.
Animals die, friends die, surely you will die yourself, but what never dies is a name if you have acquired a good one. Or, do as can be expected from you in a normal society, that is far more important than wasting away time, thinking to much on something inevitable.
The last one is especially important in our context. It indicates that what a man did in life determines how he would be seen by his succesors and the rest of the community after death. We also know that a man’s fame would also reflect on his clan. Tacitus makes several references to the unwritten moral obligations that bound a man to his clan and society. We also read in our sources that the entire clan is required to produce wergeld for a slaying. (Wilda, Strafrecht der Germanen, S 371).
Thus we also notice famous clans choose to repeat the names of their illustrous predessessors or parts thereof. Thus hoping to never forget their brave deeds and to let it be known to society that the valor of old was still honored within the clan. Let for example look at the Hildebrandslied: Hadubrand, son of Hildebrand, son of Herebrand. Actually in my own progeny, the names Adrianus and Joannes were ever reoccuring, rendering any research in my pedigry a very difficult task (e.g. how to know who the hell was the grandfather and which one the grandson). Some have seen this emphasys on valour and family honour as a proof that afterlife wasn’t believed in. Yet I believe that a strong feeling of family honour as well as a focus on brave deeds done by ancestors doesn’t exclude believe in afterlife. On the contrary, it does create a strong bond between the living and the deceased.
In conclusion to our examination of the male role as to dying and death in a farming community, we can assertain that their role remained -so to say- quite worldly and very down to earth.
As to the role performed by the women, it is no mere coincidence that the godess Saga is a woman. Actualy, aside from Odin, all entities related to death are female, Freia, Hella, Ran, the Norns, the Valkiries,… .
In my personel experience I have remarked that, whilst also continuing their daily tasks after a death has occured, it is mainly the women who recount the life of the deceiced ask for consouling talks with the priest, emphasise on the believe in afterlife. Since the smaller children would remain with them in the house, they would also explain to the children what happened, how the deceiced had lived and where he had gone to. In many cases, the corpse of the deceased would still be present within the house, awaiting the funeral.
It is also the women who, in these circumstances, describe to the children what afterlife looks like, just remember the stories of your grandmother on the eating of rice pudding with golden spoons. I never heard my grandfather recount them.
These differences can mainly be explained by the traditional role pattern in agrarian societies, where the men perform tasks that are less inclined to cosyness than those of woman. Woman taking up their tasks in the company of other women and children. Since the entire household, inclusive of thralls and relatives would live in the long houses of our Germanic ancestors, this may have been an even more social experience than in the already deminished households of a century ago.
Taking into consideration that most roles of entities related to death and afterlife were performed by women we may assume that the general believes on afterlive were mainly formed by woman, working on the death meals, explaining death to the childen of the clan.
Believes of afterlife, options and choices
Yet, what were these believes? The archeological proof offers us some clues, as does a comparative exercise examining the uses of bordering cultures.
It is clear that Germanic tradition believed in some kind of an afterlife.
If not, what would be the use of burying someone with his weapons, horses and even slaves if you didn’t believe the deceased could use them in afterlife?
Of course the possibility of enormous potlachs, destroying all wealth belonging to the deceased remains. But, though they might occasionnaly have occured in case of higher ranking funerals, this remains hard to accept for the graves of farmers and lower class folk. We must accept that our Germanic and Norse ancestors were a very sober people in all ways possible. Destruction simply for the sake of destruction doesn’t seem to fit this image.
When we examine our primary and secundary sources the first thing we encounter are a lots of references to the underworld, a great anxiety related to barrows where the death continue to live. Frederik Barbarosa still sits under the Kyffhäuser mountain , awaiting the right moment to return to life, as does Holger Danske in Kronborg. Barrows are reported to be the homes of dwarfs or elves and other spiriual beings.
They feast and continue to live inside these barrows. At night some of the barrows are raised upon poles, and several long dead warriors have been seen riding home into the barrows they were burried in. Th undead, draugr live in the barrows, it is unwise to approach them without proper protection.
Furthermore, should a mortal chance to enter the barrows, and return home somewhat later, he may discover that centuries have passed during the time that he experienced as being mere hours.
This clearly indicates that the spirits of the death enter another plane of existance or dimension, that is reigned by other basic rules of time and space.
As in al indogermanic traditions certain places (in our case the barrows, in Roman traditions the Etna etc) functioned as pathways or doorways into the afterlife.
This dimension of the afterlife is called Helheim, the reign of Hel.
The believe in this Helheim must be very ancient, since we find it in every Indo-European tradition.
Was this Underworld a sad, desolate place, as the classical Mediterannian texts and the saga’s on Valhalla seem to suggest?
I dont believe so:
first of all, daily life wasn’t that pleasant for most people, working of their backs in the dirth, constant sickness and pain. Death was omnipresent and always seemed to find disgusting and awefull ways to present itselve. Thus afterlife couldn’t have been much worse, even if it were a dull place to dwell in. Perhaps dullness was even appriciated, just think about the rice pudding and golden spoons one more time.
even in Roman and Greek tradition, not withstanding the strong emphasis on the banned souls, the Elisian fields exist, and here life is pleasant.
it would seem daily life remained quite unchanged in afterlife, as utensils, animals and slaves were given to the deceased so that he could continue to use them in afterlife
In Baldrs dream we learn that Hel had decorated a lavish feasting table when she waited for him to enter her halls. Lavish tables seem quite opposite to the imagery of a dark realm.
In all Indo-European traditions it would seem that the dead were forced to drink the drink of oblivion, in order to forget the pains and trials of life. Perhaps this was equally necessary in order to make them forget their loved ones and enemies, so that they wouldn’t become a wiedergangr.
Next to the underworld, we also find, the poorly documented domain of the sea godess Ran. People that drowned were dragged to her domain, there to live for eternity. Details on this afterlife are rare, but it must have been quite important to a people often faced with drownings.
But from above
did Sigrin brave
Aid the men and
all their faring;
from the claws of Ran
The leader’s sea-beast
(song of Helgi the Hundingbane)
Whether men were deliberatly drowned by her doing or not, she appears to have received those drowned at sea, as exemplified in the section called Hrímgerðarmál in the Eddic poem Helgakvida Hjörvardssonnar.
In Friðþjófs saga hins frœkna, Friðþjófr and his men find themselves in a violent storm, and the protagonist mourns that he will soon rest in Rán’s bed. They indicate that if they should go to Ran, they should do so in style, so Friðþjófr decides to divide the gold they carry among his men.
This indicates at least that Ran’s domain isn’t a poorly.
I found sources that claim Ran means robbery, and that her domain was filled with gold stolen from the drowned, and that those drowned that brought a lot of gold with them received a good welcome. However, I don’t seem to find clear primary sources confirming this.
Another fate was reserved for a number of dead forced to remain spirits, or even inhabited their deceased corpses -such as the draugr-, never finding the entrance to the after world.
They haunt swamps, barrows, woods etc. Several kinds of spirits seem to be in this situation:
those that die violently (e.g.murder victims, sacrificial victims),
those that die in very emotional contexts(e.g. Lovers that died together on the run for their families),
people that have commited awefull crimes (e.g. Moving boundry stones oathbreakers)
people that have unfinished business on earth (e.g. A drowning victim wanting to console its relatives or someone who had taken an oath and due to an untimely death can not longer fullfill his oath) .
The believe in these “wedergangr” must have been very strong since bogbodies have been found bing impaled to the bottom of the bog with sharpened stiks such as the Haraldskær Woman. Others have been found decapitated, their head being rediscovered much later and several meters away from the place where the body was found (e.g. Dätgen Man ).
If anyone was wondering why in modern cinema you have to decapitate vampire and impale it through the hart… .
Even though the church has done everything possible in order to put an end to these believes, they have proven to be much stronger than the new faith. As always the church, honored the old adagium, if you can’t beat them, join them. And finaly this folklore was incorporated into the practices of the church, as was done with fertility processions, replacing Nerthus by the holy virgin, or such as old habits such as putting scissors in a crib in order to protect the infant from malevalent entities were linked to he fact that the child hadn’t been baptised yet, …etc.
In the same tradition, funeral processions would pass at least one road crossing on their way to the cemetary in order to prevent an eventual wiederganger to find his way back to the world of the living, exorcisms were held in order to cleanse the places where these ‘demons’ had been seen or in order to liberate those possessed by them from their influence.
In a manner of speaking Christianity pagenised itself in order to be able to convince our ancestors of its alleged superiority. It choose to incorporate elements that hadn’t originally been part of its doctrine in order to answer to the needs of the people it wanted to assimilate in the new religion. As we know this conversion to christianity was mainly inspired by earthly power (convertion in the mostly a political act in order to ensure oneself of the support of the powerfull church and later the Frankish empire. Pious thoughs seldomly were the main motivation of the conversion, just ask Harald Bluetooth.
Back to our subject then. Interestingly, those who were to remain spirits could, after some time find rest at last. If you were a wiederganger, you didn’t need to be confined to this status for all eternity.
Wandering spirits could find rest. For example if in life you had moved border stones, you were forced to wander around with that stone, after death, looking for its original spot. If someone had the heart to help you find that spot, the punishment ended and your spirit would be free to pass on.
Up to this point it would seem that our farming ancestors mainly saw life in the underworld, or as a wiederganger as the possible outcomes. However, a third view on death and afterlife might have been, reincarnation or or even rebirth as the same person. Though it seems to have been less common in the north then in the south of the Germanic world, the sagas and folktales do present us with this option (though it seems to have been less prevalent.)
As in Celtic tradition, we see a lot of shapeshifting, gods turn into eagles, horses, wolfs etc. In Celtic tradition this is viewed as a ymbolism for rebirth, and I believe this can only partly be claimed for Germanic tradition as well. As previously stated, it would seem that in more southern regions, close to the Celtic border this tradition would have been much stronger then in the north. This would have been due to the fact that some of these regions were only recently conquered on the Celts or that in some regions, prolonged contact would have caused a certain blending of the population.
We do encounter many references in German folktales. We see or example the spirits of lovers continue to live in 2 trees growing next to each other, branches and roots intertwined. We can also interpret some traditions in name giving as traces of the believe of reincarnation in the same familygroup or clan. Royal houses continuously repeated names of illustriuous forebares, hoping their valour and spirit would have been inherited in the next generations. Sometimes this was limited to a single element of the name. Siegfried was the son of Sigmund and Sigelinde. Even in farming communities this habit seems to have existed, as proven in my previous remark on my own family tree.
Norse religion also shows clear signs of older animistic beliefs. Spirits inhabit trees, rocks etc. Elves and dwarfs live in mounths, and are sometimes viewed as the spirits of the ancestors as they inhabit the burial sites of the latter. We encounter Jack ‘o lanterns, waterspirits, etc.
I believe earlier Germanic believes were even more animistic, and may have been on a level of belief between a more classical type of religion and sjamanism. Animism seems to mainly differs from religion in that it considers animals and plants or even stones as equally fitted with personality and animus as humans.
Clearly this belief that animals are gifted with a spirit also is an element that strongly supports belief in reanimation, as shown in Hindu belief..
Even stronger evidence exists for actual rebirth as the same person as Barbarosa, Charlemagne and Holger Danske still wait to be revived, hiden under their mount/Helsingör castle. Baldr himselve shall also return from the afterlive together with Hodr etc, in order to take his place in the new Godly ranks after Ragnarok.
Encouragement of honour and valour
Now, we come to the beliefs of the upper class and the warriors or “jungmannschaften” that surrounded them. I
Ironically, though the warrior cast must have represented only a small percentage in society, the sagas were written by the surroundings of these men, thus we know more of Valhalla then any of the other realms of the dead.
In this caste the afterlife in Valhalla ( for the brave but less bright ) or Folkvangr( for the perhaps less audacious but quite bright) was vividly believed in. Those who bravely died in service of their lords were promised an afterlife amoungh fighting scollars or just fighting heroes. Forever perfecting their fighting skills or excelling in highly intellectual debate finally topped by magificent feast with rich meals, wine and the erotic company of the Valkyria
In short, their afterlife promised a continuation of their worldly life, preparing for he final battle and preparing the survival of society and knowledge after the final battle of Ragnarok. Thus the warrior cast saw its double role ensured in afterlife.
The role of the godi and their intellectual advisor as spiritual ad social leaders was thus ensured in Freja’s domain ( in fact she got the first pick of the dead ensuring that the most intelligent would come to her). The true die-hard, warriors on the other hand, the guy whereupon any ruler had to rely in order to maintain the social order that favoured him,got an equally promissing afterlife in brawling, fighting etc.
I suspect the the idea of a grim joyless underwold in Helheim originated in those circles and was actively promoted by them. In order to render the warrior cast as reckless and brave as possible, their fear of death should be annealed ( a process withnessed in all warrior societies) and apart from an appealing afterlife, this also meant that the alternative, a life as commoner in the normal afterlife, should become a lot less appealing the the life following a violent death in the service of their lords.
In order to assure the loyalty of the perhaps less belliguerous but equally important counsels of these warlord an equally attractive perspective should be offered.
They might not always get along with the “less civilised” beheavior of the mere fighting men, and being condemned to living an eternity in their presence in Walhalla might not seem so appealing to them at all. Thus life in Folkvangr, filled with poetry, and intellectual discussions with equals, ensuring the survival of the knowledge of mankind offered an attractive alternative, fit to their personal esteem. As mentionned before, what is even more important, Freja got the first pick, ensuring that these scollar spirits wouldn’t “accidentally” end up in Walhalla.
Another appealing thought, nowhere in the saga can I find evidence that these scollar warriors were to partake in the final battle of Ragnarok. It would seem it was accepted that their bravery ended after a first violent death in battle.
After all, it can be assumed that the battle of Ragnorak would end the afterlife of the Einherjar. What happens to them afterward remains a mistery. But those chosen by Freja actually survive the world end in order to pass their knowledge on to the next generation of men, represented by Lif and Lifthransir.
Interestingly, we see ideas, simular to those of Walhalla, in modern day warrior societies and cults.
As a general rule warriors are alway very religious, believe in afterlife is very strong amongh them. They must believe that their deaths on the field of glory arent useless.
E.g. modern muslim warriorgroups are mainly composed of very religious people, believing in eternal salvation, due to their death for the cause. Even in western European societies, Christian faith remains very present in army symbolism and ritual. Pompous funerals for warheroes or great generals, messes for dead heroes, etc. A look at the monuments comemorating the first and second world war will also show many religious symbols attached to this reverence for “our heroic son, dead for god, king and country”. Often depicting Jesus, blessing the dead warrior or accepting the brave dead in heaven.
One specific part of the religion hasn’t been treated yet, the existence of guardian spirits, the fylgia and personal norns.
First, as a follow up on the previous title, let’s take another look at the Valkyries. An important element is that these Valkyries are daughters of earthly kings. Thus even brave woman, with no love for weaving, spinning or household tasks had a prospect of eternal life in the service of the Gods. These women are sent by Odin and Freja to pick the right men from the battlefield. Apart from the clearly sexual connotation (not entirely unlike the virgins awaiting a brave Muslim in paradise) but largely more important; they also represent a kind of guardian spirit of the warrior. They ensure his spirit isn’t merely “lost” to helheim.
In fact they seem to be a specific kind of Norn. Very interestingly, their task seems to start after death, whereas the task of the “mainstream” norns is focused on the lifetime of the one they protect or guide through life.
I feel the beliefs of valkyries must be very ancient, as the beliefs in the Norns themselves must be quite ancient as well (cf. further on). On the Scandinavian rockcarvings such as at Tanum many flying creatures half men, half bird can be seen. In bronze age society waterbirds were holy, as can clearly be demonstrated by the large number of representations in bronze age art. As a matter of fact, the Valkyrie as we know her when thinking of the viking age (horned women, almost naked, riding a flying horse -thank you Marvel Comics) is a later evolution of the earlier representations of schield maidens in the common Germanic iron age. In German myths the shield maidens are mostly woman dressed in a swan outfit. Thus the link to the waterbirds and bronze age art becomes much clearer. The Swan also represents death and thus Valkyries are also bringers of death.
On to the Norns themselves: As the prose Edda clearly states, there a several.
Most sundered in birth
I say the Norns are;
They claim no common kin:
Some are of Æsir-kin,
some are of Elf-kind,
Some are Dvalinn’s daughters.”
It would seem that every human being has at least one Norn to guide it through life. The concept of the vaardr seems to represent exactly the same kind of guardian spirits. In fact, this is a quite sjamanistic belief, and the fact that Chistianity introduced the concept of guardian angels clearly proves it must have been a quite strong conviction, not easily erradicated. Whether you have good luck in life or bad luck fully depends on these spiritsand their level of affection to you. Succesfull kings were said to have a lucky Norn, protecting them. If ones luck turned, he might have offended his good norn.
Next to these some norns also protect the family as a whole. Just thing of the Nisse, or guardian spirit of the farm. If you caused to insult him, he would leave the farm and ofter luck would depart as well.
The hamingja or personification of the luck of a person or a family also falls within this cathegory.
A very specific kind of guardian spirit is the fylgia. The fylgia is an animal spirit somewhat like the totem animals of the native americans. It is an animal that relates to one of your basic characteristics. The foernmanna soegur relates of Thorsten Oxefod who as a boy had a fysical encounter with his guardian spirit. Apparently the boy was playing and fooling around, but upon entering the living space of the hall, he tripped and fell. Whereupon an old man, called Geitir- who was already sitting in the hall- started to laugh hearthedly. The boy got mad and asked the old man what the hell was so funny. The old man replied, I saw what you didn’t see. Upon entering, your fylgia, a young icebear cup ran before you. It felt quite uneasy when it notice I saw it. Startled, it suddenly stopped, thus making you trip.
Again this fylgia is a clear reference to sjamanism. Seeing your own fylgia would be an abode to your own death
Next to these “lesser” guiding spirits, we all know the 3 norns, spinning and cutting the threads of our lifes.
These women are the only ones that know the destiny of Gods and men alike. Although as far as I can remember, the sources don’t seem to mention it explicitely, we must assume they will survive Ragnarok:
First of all, without them who could cut the lifelines of the Gods during the final battle?
Secondly, someone should still manage the lifelines of the survivors.
They clearly are a central part of the Germanic belief system, and must be a quite ancient representation dating from Indoeuropean times. We find traces of them in many other ancient religions, e.g. the fates in Roman and Greek mythology
Furthermore, all of these guiding spirits would greatly influence the choices you were to face. Men were believed to be far less free in their choices then we modern people tend to believe we are. (the subject of destiny and faith will be treated in a seperate chapter but a small introduction seems usefull)
Faith or wyrth was spun by the norns. You could personally have some influence your faith, but the general vision seems to have been that of a number of very restricted choices limited by strictly set boundries. A phrase I will always remember, though I no longer know its source is “your wyrth has already been decided, the only thing that remains to be chosen is how to face that destiny”.
Conscienceness and personality.
Germanic and Nordic societies were very indivialistic and in the mean time focussed on the clan. There is no greater concept of a collectivity of mankind, or even the Germanic peoples. Everybody has to care for himself and for his own clan. Thus it is clear that individuality continues after death, we will not be absorbed by some kind of the general common conscienceness of the universe. Our personal spirit or conscience will continue, although it is possible that we may be forced to “drink” the drink of oblivion in order to being able to continue our existance in afterlife in order to forget the sorrows of our previous earthly lives.
It is very importbant to realise that individuality survives after death. We are not simply absorbed by the conscienceness of the universe although we may forget our previous expetiences. The death in helheim drink the drink of oblivion in order to forget their eartly sorrows and being able to concentrate on the new phase they face. Only the spirits that remain on earth seem not to drink and not to forget, which explains their continuation on this plane of existance
Afterlife after … afterlife
An important void in the sagas is that they dont offer an answer as to afterlife after afterlife. This requires some explaning.
Ragnarok ends the era as we know it, making way for a second era.
Where do the “redeceased” warriors, slain in the final battle go to? Does their existance simply end ?
As a matter of fact, where do the dead gods go to? Baldr died and went to the underworld, and he will return after Ragnarok.But what happens when Odin dies?
And what happens to the souls living in Niflhel or in the hall of Ran? They don’t partake in the final battle, are they simply lost in a striggle that isn’t theirs to fight?
Are they eternaly lost after the passage of Surtr cleansing fire?
Our sources are very fragmentory. we only know some Gods and sons of Gods survive, Baldr ad Hodr return, a men and a woman survive, as do the scollars of Gladsheim, who will instruct the survivors in the knowledge of old.
But what happens to the rest of us is unknown. We can only assume that some kind of afterlife still exists after life. It is not as if we all suddenly regain life after Ragnarok in order to repopulate the world. Had that been the case loft and loftransir wouldn’t have to survive hidden in a tree. My personal conviction is that the souls lost in the final cleasing will reincarnate in he offspring of loft and loftransir, but I must admit an equally strong case can be made for the end of their existance.
Thus, what happens to the death after ragnarok isn’t clear, what is however clear is that there is no such thing as an eternal paradise such as claimed by many Christians.
As a conclusion, we may state that Norse and Germanic belief systems see death as a portal offering multiple options for afterlife. Yet not every spirit would face the same options. The pathways a deceased spirit might choose from would be determined by their choices and behaevior in life. Brave deaths would open the road to Walhalla. Death in bed would open the road to Helheim, unless you felt you had unfinished business or you were malevalent spirit. Even reincarnation or in exceptional case reappearance in a life form, was one of the possibilities.
It is clear that due to the lack of an organised priestly cast believes the details and options may have strongly varied locally, based on the personal convictions of the Godi. But since these Godi’s were people belonging to the higher cast, we must also expect their vision to have been focussed on the warrior aspect, neglecting several aspects that may have appealed to the lower casts.
These “farmer“ elements would, in my opinion mainly be formulated by wise elderly women or seeeresses (cf. the reports on the trek of the Cimbri and Teutoni. Their route was determined by elderly woman,with the gift to see the future.)
What does this mean for the modern Asatruar, how should we consider/face death? Death should be seen as a portal. What we do in our present life determins the choices that will be presented to us or forced upon us when we die, Hellheim, reincarnation, Walhalla etc. We do not face this future alone, guiding and guardian spirits stand at our side, even though we cannot see them, nor interact with them. Our liberty of choice does exist, though the modern illusion of unlimited freedom isn’t equalled in our belief. We are not be as freely as modern liberal dogma presents it to us.
Our surroundings greatly influence our possibilities and choices. For example a person born in a poor subgroup of society will , no matter how hard he wishes it, be faced by very bad odds should he wish to realise this dream. For most of them it will be impossible. But he can choose to use the opportunities presented by the situations he faces (or so to say forced upon him by his norns) as good as he can, thus improving his personal situation. Even though he will never reach the goals he would have set had he had a completely free will. This will partly be remedied by death since what happens to us in afterlife will be determined by our attitudes (not realisations) in present life.
This means we do not face a grim colorless death in Helheim. It means the afterlife is much more faceted then we might believe.
I also means we can face death with confidence, we will not be left to disappear into a gigantic void, losing all experiences we have had in life. It gives our life a sense and a meaning. We won’t get lost.