The Afterlife

Posted by Byron Pendason on , in Afterlife, Heathen worldview, Heathenry, Reconstruction

Heathenry, like much of paganism, is a religion which focuses on this life. Heathens worry more about cultivating relationships with their divine beings to gain their aid in making this life better, rather than trying to please a god to gain entrance into the hereafter. But to say Heathenry has no afterlife would also be inaccurate. While some Heathens believe this life is all we get, the majority believe that death is only a transition into an afterlife of some kind.

The fact that Heathens make offerings to their deceased family and friends imply that they believe they continue to exist in some form beyond the grave. Otherwise, these offerings would be being made in vain. In fact, this is our biggest clue that ancient Heathens believed in an afterlife of some kind. The grave goods which were made as gifts to the deceased, especially when weapons and food were the offerings made. This shows that they believed the ancestors needed these items in the afterlife.

While we can’t say with one hundred percent certainty what the Anglo-Saxons believed about the afterlife, I’d say the belief in an underworld- the realm of the dead- is a safe bet. Belief in the underworld seems to be almost universal in ancient cultures, and according to Isabelle Wallace, it may be “as old as humanity itself”.

Anglo-Saxon belief in an Underworld can be inferred from Old English literature. King Alfred refers to Cerebus, the hound that guards the entrance into the Greek underworld Hades, as the hell hund. This tells me that his Heathen ancestors’s view on Hell was similar enough to the Greek underworld, Hades, to equivalate the two. The Anglo-Saxons also used the word hellegod (“hell god”) as a gloss for an underworld deity. It would appear that to the pre-Christian Anglo-Saxons, Hell was their name for the underworld.

Looking at Norse mythology, there is also an underworld, called Hel. Like the Greeks and Romans, the Norse underworld was ruled over by a deity that had the same name as the realm of the dead (though the Norse underworld was ruled over by a goddess instead of a male god).

So who would be the Anglo-Saxon hellegod? Following the example of other European mythologies would give a deity with the same name as the underworld. In the case of the Anglo-Saxons, it would be the goddess Hell. In The Old English Gospel of Nicodemus, there is actually a female character named Hell who flyts (has a competition of trading insults) with Satan and she even tells him to get out of her home! This Hell, I believe, is a survival in Old English folklore of the goddess of the underworld herself.

So what would an afterlife in the realm of Hell be like? The underworld is generally described as a dark and dreary place, but some mythologies include within it places they aren’t so. For example, in Hades you have the Elysian Fields and the Asphodel Meadows. The first was for Heroes, whereas the second was for ordinary souls who hadn’t committed any major crimes. The wicked were sent to Tartarus, which was more similar to the Christian Hell.

If you accept Frau Holle as an Underworld deity for continental Heathenry, then her underworld contained orchards and cottages, and doesn’t appear to be too much different than life on earth.

One thing is certain. None of the pre-Christian underworlds, including the Anglo-Saxon Hell, were like the Christian Hell. There is no fire and brimstone. Tartarus, in the Greek mythology, is close to the Christian Hell, in that the wicked are punished there, but that’s not the entirety of Hades. All humans went to Hades in the ancient Greek religion, and only the wicked were punished. Most ended up in the Asphodel fields.

A common euphemism in many ancient languages for death is something along the lines of “went to be with his/her ancestors” or “joined his/her ancestors”. In just about every ancient culture, they believed the soul of the deceased was united with their ancestors. They didn’t hope to be with their gods when they died, but rather to be with their loved ones who passed on before them. As mentioned, humans ended up in the underworld after they died, so that’s where they hoped to end up.

So what about Valhalla? Contrary to popular belief, Valhalla isn’t the Heathen heaven. Valhalla is, in Norse mythology, Odin’s hall where half those who are slain in battle go after they die. There, they fight to the death every day, and then are resurrected to do it all again the next day. It’s a training ground for Ragnarok, the apocalyptic battle that kills almost all the gods, giants, and humans. Neither Ragnarok nor Valhalla, as far as I’ve been able to uncover, is attested to in any of the non-Norse Germanic sources, including Anglo-Saxons. Some believe they were inventions of Snorri (the Christian monk who wrote down most of the Norse mythology that has survived), based upon its similarities to the Christian Armageddon. But either way, it’s nowhere to be found in Anglo-Saxon Heathenry.

Before getting into my personal beliefs of the afterlife, I would like to talk about the ancient Heathen belief in the multi-part soul. The ancient Heathen concept of the soul divided it into several interdependent and connected parts. The number of parts and their names and functions very likely varied in different areas and times. But basically, different aspects of one’s self was ascribed to different parts of the soul. So one part was responsible for rationality, another for emotions, another for memory, etc. There was also a part that was said to travel outside the body (the fetch in certain traditions), the breath was considered a part of the soul, as was the body. The subject gets much more complicated, but this basic overview will suffice for the discussion at hand. (A more in depth discussion can be found at the blog Wind in the Worldtree, found here.)

So here is my personal belief on what happens after death. The multi-part soul fractures a bit when our breath leaves us at death, as I believe it is the glue that holds it together. The parts of the soul responsible for a person’s personality (emotions, memories, rationality) stay together, still tied together by the personality of who that person had become. This part begins a journey to the underworld asking with their grave goods, and there is reunited with their ancestors. The afterlife is spent with the soul maturing by learning from the stories of its ancestors, and by observing what continues to go on in the world with their descendants. When the soul reaches a certain maturity, it can return to our world to act as “guardian angels” (for lack of a better term), to protect and to aid their descendants.

Other parts of the soul become ghosts that stay in our world, remembering only a fraction of what had happened in their lifetime. They can eventually join other groups of wights such as elfs, dwarfs, etc, and become that type of wight. (We have Norse sources where the Norse regarded some of these wights as their ancestors, particularly some elfs and disir.) I do not believe all wights are parts of humans souls left behind, of course, but I believe some of them are. I think a part of the soul left behind may even join with the forming soul of a fetus, explaining why some people have fragments of memories from past lives while others seem to remember nothing at all with even the best past life regression techniques.

This is simply my beliefs about the afterlife, based upon my research and experiences. I am not dogmatic about them, and always love to hear differing viewpoints! So I’d love to hear your thoughts on the afterlife in the comments section below.