Gnosis Diary: Life as a Heathen

My personal experiences, including religious and spiritual experiences, community interaction, general heathenry, and modern life on my heathen path, which is Asatru.

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The Afterlife in Asatru

Posted by on in Paths Blogs

In Asatru, and many other sects of heathenry, we believe the soul has multiple parts, and that some of these parts can go on to an afterlife, while other parts can be reincarnated. The soul part that corresponds with the personality and memory can go either way, and it can also reach oblivion before being recycled / reincarnated. Other parts of the soul complex can go on, be reincarnated, or just stop. Actions one can take on Earth can affect this outcome. If one is going on to an afterlife, there are many possible afterlife destinations, some of which are here on Earth—which we call Midgard—and some of which are in other worlds / other dimensions.

Some people have been sharing a meme based on a Wikipedia page on one sect of heathenry, "Norse Paganism," thinking that it applies to all sects. It does not apply to Asatru. The page, and the meme, is divided into 4 sections, labeled Valhalla, Folkvangr, Helgafjell, and Helheim. The sections on Valhalla and Folkvangr are not bad. Those realms are the two places where the battle slain go, to Odin in Valhalla within Gladsheim and to Freya in Sessrumnir within Folkvangr.

The section on Hel gets Hel wrong. Hel is not a place of punishment. It's just the world of the dead. Christians used the word Hel to translate their word for the realm of the dead, just like they used the word godh (god) to translate their word for God. Both words ended up having Christian connotations in modern English, but the original heathen Hel had as much resemblance to the Christian Hell as original heathen god has to Christian God. Rather than a place of punishment, Hel or Helheim is the catch-all, or default realm. It is ruled by Hel, or Hela. Hel the goddess and Hel the place have the same name for the same reason that Normandy is the name of a land and a Duke.

Helgafjel is an obscure place name that most heathens don't even recognize. Is it a place within Hel, or a mountain on Earth? It can be argued that all grave mounds are simultaneously on this earth and in the realm of the dead. There is a real place in Iceland called Helgafell, meaning "holy mountain." The place spelled Helgafjel also means "holy mountain," but it may not have been the same place. It may have been in Norway, in which case, it is now named something else, since it no longer appears on any maps. Either way, Helgafjel was a real physical mountain, and the belief in Helgafjel was a local belief in a mountain in which the dead of a particular set of linked families or the dead of a particular locality went. The page is specific to a sect of heathenry where the people lived within sight of the mountain. The meme makers have mistaken it for a generalized belief across heathen cultures (that is, pagan cultures which worshipped the gods generally called the Norse gods.) As a physical place where the dead are said to reside, this then is a type of mound-dead belief, even though there is no evidence the mountain was actually used as a burial site. The dead in a specific mountain, mound, ship burial, graveyard, etc. are specific dead people with names, usually people who lived in the area.

Historically, the line between the mound-dead and the mound-elf was fuzzy. Freyr as king of Alfheim (elf home) may have had an aspect in which he was also king of the male dead ancestors. His sister Freya may have had an aspect as queen of the female dead ancestors, as indicated by her name Vanadis, goddess of the disir (female ancestral spirits.)

Other possible afterlife destinations include the home of Thor, who may have been considered to collect farmers in historical times, although the word used in the lore was a more general word for the non-warrior caste. The goddess Ran collects the drowned dead. Frigga (or Frau Holle) collects the souls of dead children; this is the meaning of Mother Night, when the Dark Mother rides the Wild Hunt. In an earlier time, when Tyr was king, his wife Zisa collected the dead in her war-boat. Gefjon, who may be an aspect of Freya, is said to collect the souls of unmarried women. Many if not most of the heathen pantheon have halls where they house the souls of dead humans.

In historical times, people who wanted to go to a specific god tried to live their lives in such a way that they would be likely to die doing the god’s special thing, such as sailing. Some heathens today also do this, although others believe that devotion to a god as a priest or other type of specialist opens the way to that god.

Naming customs also can affect the afterlife, but it affects the afterlife of the named person, although this is a bit complicated. The soul part in which talents reside is not the same as the soul part that contains memories, so when someone names a child after their grandfather hoping to gain grandfather’s musical talents, that does not necessarily draw the memory part; it is possible for grandfather to both be reborn in his line and stay with his god in the afterlife at the same time. On the other hand, if one names a child after a friend specifically to honor that friend who is still alive, no part of the still alive person’s soul is transferred at the ceremony, but it is possible for part of the soul to arrive later, upon the death of the other party, as the shared name opens the way between them.

Historical heathen cultures spanned a great deal of time over a great many places. Some heathens spoke languages that other heathens from other times and places would not understand. Modern heathens in America usually draw their heathenry from a wide variety of cultures, although some of them can be as local and specific as their European counterparts.

Image: Valknut, fiber art by Erin Lale

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Erin Lale is the author of Asatru For Beginners, and the updated, longer version of her book, Asatru: A Beginner's Guide to the Heathen Path. Erin has been a gythia since 1989. She was the editor and publisher of Berserkrgangr Magazine, and is admin/ owner of the Asatru Facebook Forum. She also writes science fiction and poetry, ran for public office, is a dyer and fiber artist, was acquisitions editor at a small press, and founded the Heathen Visibility Project.

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