On the Afterlife

Posted by Byron Pendason on February 17, 2024 CE, in , , ,

Wes hāl!1 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.2

We do not have any direct attestations of what the pre-Christian Anglo-Saxon afterlife would have been like. However, I feel we can piece tlogether a pretty good idea of what it would have been like by using the usual methods of reconstruction. We will start with linguistics, move on to comparing what other related cultures believed, and then attempt to put it into an Anglo-Saxon context.

The Underworld

Let’s start with the fact that an underworld is an ubiquitous belief across human cultures. The Christian concept of hell is the Christian equivalent, except they made it the bad place. When converting a people to Christianity, they’d often take the underworld and equate it to their Gehenna3. The most famous examples are probably the Greek Hades and the Norse Hel. They did the same with the Anglo-Saxon Hell.

Through linguistic studies, we’re pretty sure that Hell predates Christianity. It goes back to the proto-Germanic *haljo.4 Proto-Germanic was spoken from about 500 BCE to 200 CE, long before the Germanic peoples converted to Christianity. It comes from the Proto-Indo-European word meaning to cover.5 The fact that all the Germanic languages decided to use the same word to designate the Christian Gehenna most likely means that it predated the conversion to Christianity. Taking Christianity’s habit of using the prexising underworld to designate their place of eternal suffering, I think this is a good indication that Hell would have been the underworld of the pre-Christian Anglo-Saxons.

The goddess Hell actually shows up in the Old English “translation” (in some parts, it’s more like a retelling) of The Gospel of Nicodemus. There’s a part in this extra-biblical gospel where Satan and a female character named Hell have an argument, and she essentially kicks Satan out of her domain. Some have argued that this is just a personification of the Christian hell, but the fact that in Norse sources we have a goddess of the underworld with essentially the same name (Hel) having the same role (underworld goddess) is a good indication that we’re dealing with the Anglo-Saxon cognate in Nicodemus.

What is the Anglo-Saxon Underworld Like?

We’re going to have to do a little analysis of Norse sources to answer this question. Snorri tells us in the Prose Edda that Hel was a dark and gloomy place where those who die of sickness and old age go. However, he kind of contradicts this when Baldur is murdered by the deception of Loki6 and is sent to Hel. There he feasts with Hel in her hall.

Snorri’s depictions of Hel as a dark and gloomy place (with the exception of the story about Baldur’s feasting there) is, in my opinion, a result of his Christian biases. We get another account of a journey to Hel in Saxo’s History of the Danes:

While Hadding was sojourning with her a marvellous portent befell him. While he was at supper, a woman bearing hemlocks was seen to raise her head beside the brazier, and, stretching out the lap of her robe, seemed to ask, “in what part of the world such fresh herbs had grown in winter?” The king desired to know; and, wrapping him in her mantle, she drew him with her underground, and vanished. I take it that the nether gods purposed that he should pay a visit in the flesh to the regions whither he must go when he died. So they first pierced through a certain dark misty cloud, and then advancing along a path that was worn away with long thoroughfaring, they beheld certain men wearing rich robes, and nobles clad in purple; these passed, they at last approached sunny regions which produced the herbs the woman had brought away. Going further, they came on a swift and tumbling river of leaden waters, whirling down on its rapid current divers sorts of missiles, and likewise made passable by a bridge. When they had crossed this, they beheld two armies encountering one another with might and main. And when Hadding inquired of the woman about their estate: “These,” she said, “are they who, having been slain by the sword, declare the manner of their death by a continual rehearsal, and enact the deeds of their past life in a living spectacle.” Then a wall hard to approach and to climb blocked their further advance. The woman tried to leap it, but in vain, being unable to do so even with her slender wrinkled body; then she wrung off the head of a cock which she chanced to be taking down with her, and flung it beyond the barrier of the walls; and forthwith the bird came to life again, and testified by a loud crow to recovery of its breathing. Then Hadding turned back and began to make homewards7

Hel here is described as a place where green herbs grow year round. It has fields and rivers. There’s even a proto-Valhalla where warriors repeatedly fight the same battles over and over again, though this is in Hel and in no way related to Odin or to Ragnarok (the latter of which seems to be absent in Germanic sources outside of Scandinavia).

My interpretation of this is that there’s a journey to our ancestral halls (represented in this story by the walled city where the dead chicken returns to life). On the way there, there are traps that can ensnare us and delay our arrival to our afterlife destination. In this story, we see only the ones that Hadding would have been tempted by. We have the nobility dressed in fine robes. This is a trap for those who can’t let go of their worldly wealth. Then we have the warriors who are repeatedly fighting the same battle. This is the trap for those who can’t put their wars of this lifetime behind them. I think the traps that each of us face will be unique to us, and each will require us to give up a facet of our worldly existence to progress along the path. For a modern retelling of this tale into an Anglo-Saxon context, check out Wind in the Worldtree’s excellent The Well-Worn Path to Hell.

This tale doesn’t tell us, however, what happens after we reach our destination. For that, let’s turn to the Eyrbyggja Saga. In chapter 11, we read this:

That same harvest Thorstein fared out to Hoskuldsey to fish; but on an evening of harvest a shepherd-man of Thorstein’s fared after his sheep north of Holyfell; there he saw how the fell was opened on the north side, and in the fell he saw mighty fires, and heard huge clamour therein, and the clank of drinking-horns; and when he hearkened if perchance he might hear any words clear of others, he heard that there was welcomed Thorstein Codbiter and his crew, and he was bidden to sit in the high-seat over against his father.8

I believe, based upon this except, that we are welcomed by our ancestors, and we feast with them there.

Other Afterlife Theories

Some Heathens believe we become elves, or perhaps another kind of wight, when we die. The reason for this is because there are Norse sources that will identify a specific elf as a king or an ancestor. There’s also indications that Norse believed in a kind of reincarnation, with accounts of ghosts of recently deceased relatives passing into the body of a newborn baby.9 (I don’t think that this reincarnation is limited to a family line, I think it just seemed that way in ancient times because one’s family was most likely to be the ones around as family stuck closer together back then.)

The way to explain this is the Heathen concept of the multi-part soul. It can become a deep study, but basically the ancient Germanic peoples believed that the soul was composed of many separate but inter-related parts. The number and identification of these parts can vary by source, but different aspects of the self were attributed to various parts of the soul. I believe that some parts of our soul may become wights such as elves or folġere (fylgja). Other parts may attach itself to the forming soul of a baby, leading to a form of reincarnation. I think the parts that are most responsible for who we are (such as our personality, rational mind, and memories) however stick together and make the journey to Hell.

The Road to Hell

Grave goods found in burial mounds across Northern Europe indicate that the ancient Germanic peoples believed that there was a journey to the afterlife. These grave goods include things like weapons, modes of transportation, provisions for the journey, etc.10 Journeys to the afterlife are a common trope in many cultures across the globe, and we’ve already discussed one from the Norse sources (Saxo’s account of Hadding’s journey to Hel).

I believe one factor for the ease of this journey is one’s virtue (moral character). The reason for this is that the Old English word for might or strength (mægen11) can also mean virtue. The greater one’s virtue when they die, the greater their spiritual strength is and the easier this journey will be.

Wyrmsele, Wyrmgeard

Many people view the afterlife as a place to reward the righteous and to punish the wicked. There are pagans who assume that this originated with the Christians, but we see this also with the Greek and the Norse. The Norse had Náströnd, which was the afterlife for those guilty of murder, adultery, and oath-breaking. Here, the serpent Niðhöggr chewed upon the corpses of such people. We can’t be sure that this wasn’t influenced by Christianity, but it at least predates the conversion, being found in the Völuspá. In Hellenism, we have Tartarus where not only the enemies of the gods were imprisoned, but particularly wicked humans ended up after death.

In Old English, we find the words Wyrmsele12 (Serpent hall) and Wyrmgeard13 (Serpent enclosure) used as a name for the Christian hell. It sounds awfully reminiscent of Nástrond though, which leads me to believe it served a similar function for the pre-Christian Anglo-Saxons. I think those who were particularly wicked would end up in Wyrmgeard. We have no idea who would have judged them to send them here, but I think the most likely cases would be either one’s ancestors, the Queen of Hell, or maybe Hell is set up in such a way that those who’s mægen wasn’t strong enough to reach their ancestral hall would naturally end up here. I have a feeling though that this isn’t an eternal punishment, and that perhaps the souls of the wicked could end up with their ancestors after they’ve paid for their crimes. It doesn’t seem very just to me for a person to receive infinite punishment for a finite life of wickedness.


Neorxnawang14 is found in Old English literature, referring to paradise. The wang suffix indicates a field, but we’re not sure what the rest of the word means. The best theory seems to be that it is related ne wyrcan, meaning “no working”. To me, this sounds similar to the Greek Elysian Fields (also known as the Isle(s) of the Blessed), the place where the particularly heroic and virtous ended up. In Norse lore, we have Gimle which is described in Völupsá 64 as “There shall the righteous rulers dwell, And happiness there shall they ever have.”

I view Neorxnawang as being a location in Hell, and it’s the opposite of Wyrmgeard. The particularly virtuous would end up in this paradise. I do think though that in order to reach this afterlife you have to have been virtuous to such a degree that the number who reach this afterlife is very very small. The vast majority of humans, in my opinion, will end up in their ancestral halls instead of in Wyrmgeard or in Neorxnawang.


While writing this blog post, a friend sent me a TikTok video about the concept of the Hellmouth. This is an idea that is first found in medieval Anglo-Saxon Christian art, typically in reference to Christ’s visit to Hell after his crucifixion. It’s the jaws of a beast that must be passed through to get to hell. Since this idea has no basis in the Bible or anywhere else in Christian sources before it started showing up in Christian Anglo-Saxon art, some speculate it originated in the pre-Christian religion of the Anglo-Saxons.

To be honest, I cannot as of yet figure out how to incorporate this into my view of the afterlife. It seems like it would depend upon a negative view of Hell, so my instinct is to chalk it up as a Christian invention to make Christ’s journey to hell more exciting of a story. I will continue to contemplate upon it though, and if I change my mind I will write more about it.

So What Happens When We Die?

Here’s a summary of my view of the afterlife:

When we die, I believe our soul is fractured into its component parts. Some parts may become wights, others may reincarnate by attaching itself to the forming soul of a baby. The parts of the soul most closely associated with who we are, though, begins a journey that takes it to Hell. This journey’s difficulty is proportional to one’s virtue at their death and the grave goods given to aid in that journey. Once in Hell, one may face tests or traps on their way to their ancestral hall, but most will eventually make their way to their ancestors. For the particularly virtuous, a paradise known as Neorxnawang is awaiting, whereas the particularly wicked will have to pay for their vices in Wyrmgeard.

I hope you found this post helpful, or at least thought provoking. Please let me know what you think in the comments below. Until next time, beo gesund!1

  1. Wes hāl and Beo gesund are Old English greetings and farewells that literally mean Be well/whole/healthy. The first seemed to be more common among the Anglian dialects and the second more common among the Saxon dialects. I prefer to use both though, the first as a greeting and the second as a farewell.  2

  2. Long time readers of this blog may recognize this opening from my previous post on the afterlife. I figured it was about time to do a rewrite of that blog post. It’s been four years, and I feel that I can write a better post incorporating the information that I have gleaned since then.

    This will be the only time in this blog post that I will be quoting from that blog post, though. This is an all new write up from that blog post. A lot of ideas will be the same, but some of it may be new. 

  3. Gehenna was the afterlife place of torment for the wicked, according to Jesus (for example, in Matthew 10:28: “Fear him who is able to destroy both soul and body in Gehenna.”). It was supposedly named after a trash dump outside of Jerusalem where they burned trash. Many English Bible translations simply translate it as Hell. 

  4. https://en.m.wiktionary.org/wiki/Reconstruction:Proto-Germanic/halj%C5%8D 

  5. https://en.m.wiktionary.org/wiki/Reconstruction:Proto-Indo-European/%E1%B8%B1el- 

  6. I am dealing with the account of Baldur’s death as found in the Prose Edda here. In Saxo Grammaticus’s account of Baldur’s death in his History of the Danes, Loki is completely absent. This probably indicates that Loki’s involvement in Baldur’s death is an Icelandic development. It’s not an invention of Snorri as some have speculated though, as Loki is blamed for Baldur’s death in the Poetic Edda, as well. 

  7. https://www.gutenberg.org/files/1150/1150-h/1150-h.htm 

  8. https://sagadb.org/eyrbyggja_saga.en 

  9. For a discussion of these various afterlives, check out https://www.worldhistory.org/article/1290/norse-ghosts–the-afterlife/ 

  10. An excellent discussion of the literary and archaeological evidence for this topic is The Road to Hel: A Study of the Conception of the Dead in Old Norse Literature by Hilda Roderick Ellis Davidson 

  11. https://bosworthtoller.com/22054 

  12. https://bosworthtoller.com/36997 

  13. https://bosworthtoller.com/36988 

  14. https://bosworthtoller.com/23570