Historical Perspective

The Valhalla Myth

Due in part to the success of shows like Vikings, comic books, and the Viking metal movement, many new Heathens buy into the myth of Valhalla as a desirable afterlife.

While the Eddas and sagas certainly make mention of Valhalla, the “rules” for entry were pretty clear: one must be killed in battle to gain admittance. Even then, only half of the battle slain were chosen to go; the others went to Freyja’s hall, Folkvangr. For those who were chosen for Valhalla, they could expect to fight each day until they were slain again, and then rise to feast that night, in a cycle that would continue until Ragnarok. And while the idea of feasting and fighting for eternity might appeal to many of us, Valhalla isn’t quite what it appears to be.

In Road to Hel by Hilda Roderick Ellis, the author points out that Valhalla wasn’t commonly mentioned in Skaldic poetry until nearly the end of the arch-Heathen period, well into what is commonly called the “Viking age.” During this period, many arch-Heathens were traveling great distances, sometimes raiding, and the odds of dying in battle and not having your body returned home were increasing. This lends credence to the idea of Valhalla as a “consolation prize” for those who fell far from home.

Archaeological finds have discovered that many heathen burial mounds were actually family mounds, and they were entombed with living belongings like forks, knives, combs, etc. It is believed that the purpose of this was because the spirit of that individual, which was believed connected to the bones of the body, was now going to reside there with the fallen’s ancestors. This was a desirable end for Heathens; the focus on family and community outweighed everything else.

Valhalla, meanwhile, was less a “reward” and more a default for those who fell far from home. The description itself, with shields as a roof and swords their only light source, is believed to be a kenning for the battlefield itself, where the slain were frequently interred or even left to rot after a battle. And while this description may appeal to some Heathens, the fact remains that a true Heathen outlook would see one prefer to be buried alongside their family, their ancestors, so that they may properly watch over and guide their descendants. Something that those who fell in far-flung lands would be unable to do.

The focus on the Eddas and Sagas over all other material is frequently the cause of this particular fascination with Valhalla. And while Snorri did modern Heathens a great service by preserving what he could of the lore, he did so often unaware of the context, or ascribing a context in line with his own beliefs and upbringing. This is, in large part, why so many Heathens today insist on digging deeper, finding the truths behind these very basic concepts presented by Snorri. Valhalla is one of those concepts, behind which lies a much more important truth: dying in battle was honorable, but resting alongside your ancestors was more desirable.

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