The Vikings, being a somewhat pragmatic people, believed in at least three different afterlives. Which after death location you ended up in depended on your actions in life and the manner of your death!
A Tiered Afterlife
The most likely after death abode for a Viking was Helheim, literally the home of the goddess Hel, a monstrous daughter of Loki. Helheim was the place for all those who died of sickness or old age. Helheim is described as dark, misty and cold, populated by such denizens as Garm, a huge monstrous dog and the giant Hraesvelg ("corpse eater"). A certain amount of dishonour seems to have been attached to those who ended up in Helheim!
The more respected Folkvangr or "Field of the People" was the afterlife for warriors and those who died in battle bravely, presided over by the goddess Freya the sources appear to depict Folkvangr as something close to a rural paradise, a place of rest and reward.
However, by far the most prestigious after death address for a Viking was Odin's mead hall, the hall of the slain, otherwise known as Valholl or Valhalla. Contrary to popular belief, it was only the absolute best Viking warriors who went there when they died.
Fun and Games in Valhalla!
In Valhalla, there were golden shields on the ceiling. Over 500 doors allowed the resident warriors to leave the building quickly in case of attack, but perhaps more importantly to the party minded inhabitants, there was a goat that dispensed mead!
In Valhalla, the best Viking warriors and heroes would fight each other every day, with the slain and dismembered being healed or resurrected in time for the evening where they would feast and sing in the company of Odin, the father of the gods. This routine happened every day, until that is they are called on to assist Odin in his hopeless fight against the huge, ferocious, black wolf Fenrir, (a son of Loki) at the end of the world or "Ragnarok". Ragnarok is the Vikings apocalypse, where the wolf Fenrir and the serpent Jormungandr will arise and according to Gylfaginning chapter 52, “heaven and earth and the whole world are burned. All the gods will be dead, together with the Einherjar and the whole of mankind.”
Odin is therefore favourite to lose this fight and to die in the attempt to avert the end of the world. The gathering of the very best Viking warriors to fight at his side therefore represents the actions of a shrewd gambler, Odin's attempt to tilt the odds more in his favour. If he can gather enough strong and skilled warriors, perhaps Fenrir can be defeated and the world saved?
A Powerful Incentive
Valhalla was excellent motivation for the Vikings as it removed much of their fear in battle. This in turn made the Vikings able to overcome superior forces and to withstand losses that would have destroyed the morale of an army of a different culture, Valhalla was without doubt one of the reasons the Vikings were so capable and so feared in battle. Some Viking warriors even went to the extent of seeking out heroic ends in order to draw the attention of Odin and be granted entrance, the most famous of these were the Berserkr.
The name Bersekr (or Berserker as they are more commonly known) most likely comes from Bare-sark, meaning "bare of shirt", this is due to their habit of entering battle with little if any armour, Ynglingasaga records this tradition, saying of the warriors of Odin that "they went without coats of mail, and acted like mad dogs and wolves." (Snorri Sturluson) While the Berserker were most likely simply a small cult that exclusively worshiped Odin, their reputation amongst their fellow Vikings and amongst the peoples that they came into contact with was huge. Indeed the common image of the snarling, brutal, fur clad savage that persists for all Vikings is most likely a legacy of the Berserker. Thought to have superhuman powers, to be able to change into wolves or bears and to be immune to ordinary weapons Berserker were used by Viking kings as shock troops, the first into the fight. After going berserk, using the Berserkrgang, Berserker would charge in small numbers directly into vastly superior forces in order to draw the attention of Odin and to earn their place in Valhalla, not surprisingly they did not live very long lives; Valhalla is surely filled with them!
A Prestigious Name!
Valhalla as a cultural construct persists into the modern world; it is almost universally recognised in western society because most people have been exposed to the name at one time or other. Numerous places are called Valhalla, the town of Valhalla in New York State, or the famous Valhalla golf club in Louisville Kentucky for example. Valhalla is also heavily represented in the world of video gaming, from being the title of a game in 1983 to the inspiration for the Nord afterlife of Sovngaard in Bethesda's 2011 game Skyrim. Therefore, whether people heard the name from a road sign or a map, or because they like golf or video games, or even if they heard it referenced in one of Marvel's comics or movies, almost everyone knows what Valhalla is, even in today's world it retains its prestige!
So, if you find yourself in Valhalla, congratulations! For you are surely one of the best of the best of Viking warriors, enjoy your fame and the company of those around you! You might want to watch out for the Berserker, they can get aggressive.... But always remember not to get too comfortable, one day Odin will call and you and the rest of Valhalla will face Fenrir. Fight well and the world can still be saved! Ragnarok awaits you!
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