Vikings are popular today. In TV shows like Vikings, video games and movies, the Viking warrior waving a sword and proclaiming those who die will go to Valhalla has become a cliché. This post is prompted by the third season of The Last Kingdom. I don’t want drop any spoilers, but essentially the season revolves around the death of a warrior who doesn’t die in battle and so there is a quest to allow his soul from Niflheim to Valhalla.
Which left me scratching my head, going “huh?”
Now, I am well aware that historical fiction is as much a product of the time it is made as the time it is depicting. There are plenty of things to unpack with the current popular tropes around Vikings, but for this post I want to focus on the obsession with Valhalla. First off, I will point out this is not an accurate depiction.
Norse Were not Just Vikings
“Viking” was originally a verb, not a noun. To go a Viking was to go raiding. Even an army is more support personnel than actual infantry fighters. An entire culture needs the skilled labor to feed, house, build the ships, and care for their people. Even acknowledging the fact the Viking era was far more violent than today, there probably was a lot of Norse who didn’t die in battle. The Norse were explorers, traders, and skilled artisans beside being warriors.
The Norse had Multiple Afterlifes
Like most cultures that either didn’t have writing or only spotty writing survives to the modern day, spread over a large geographical area with many regional differences, and that evolved and changed over centuries, we don’t have consistent writings on the Norse beliefs about the afterlife. One thing that does appear constant is the belief that an afterlife exists—there are parts of the soul that continue to exist after death. The other constant is that there are many places one can go after they die, and those seem to be based on how one died, where, or what family one belonged to as opposed to a judgement on how good or bad someone was in life.
This is consistent with many other polytheist traditions, but I am focusing on the Norse. While there is bunch of lore that has been lost, there are still writings of multiple places a soul goes to after death. Besides Valhalla there is the realm of the giantess Ran for those who died at sea, mountains that were said to contain generations of the dead, burial mounds, and Hel the place.
Not All those who died in Battle Went to Valhalla
Even if you died in battle, you had a 50/50 shot of making it to Valhalla. Freya chose half of the fallen to bring to her hall Folkvangr. Odin and his Valkyrie chose the other half to be his warriors at Ragnorak. While there are stories of Odin putting his thumb on the scale so a particular warrior he wanted for Ragnorak died in battle and thus could be claimed, this was never a guarantee.
Valhalla Isn’t Heaven, Hel is not Hell
I will admit there is a type of person who the thought of an afterlife spent fighting during the day, healing wounds, and feasting at night sounds like a good one. That type of personality is probably more likely than not to die in battle. That doesn’t mean Valhalla is a paradise. To someone who doesn’t have that type of personality, spending the afterlife fighting is definitely not heaven.
Most of the writers of modern Viking pop culture are not Heathen. I suspect there is a lot of Christian bias going on—Valhalla is equated with Heaven, and Hel’s land is thought to be well, Hell. The problem is while they have the same name the realms are completely different. Yes, Hel was cold, but there aren’t any writings of eternal punishment. When Baldr dies and someone is sent to Hel to bring him back, Baldr isn’t particularly eager to leave, and there is no reference he found his time there to be eternal torment.
Making it to Valhalla Shouldn’t be a Goal of Modern Heathens
I personally have no doubt I will not be going to Valhalla. While I am pretty sure I won’t be dying in battle (that is probably last on my list of preferred ways to leave this world) I am also not keen on the idea of spending my afterlife well, fighting. Getting to see friends and loved ones who have passed on, meeting ancestors I never knew in life, strikes me as far better deal than being in an eternal sparring ring.
Much as I enjoy TV shows like the Last Kingdom, there are many times I have to remind myself: this is a drama, not a documentary. The Valhalla obsession is one pet peeve of mine. I admit though it is a popular trope, and says quite a lot about people today.