Whether you are part of a religion or not, we’ve all thought about death and what happens after it. Different groups of people have come up with different theories of the afterlife, from reincarnation to heaven and hell. Vikings also had their beliefs about the afterlife and most of it involved Valhalla.
Valhalla is one of the most popular places in Norse mythology, to say the least. It has been attested in many of the main written sources and pop culture. While many people may be familiar with what it is, very few understand its meaning and what it symbolizes. That is why this article will expound on the meaning of Valhalla and what it represents to the Vikings and the Norse mythology.
What Is Valhalla In Norse Mythology?
Valhalla, also known as Valhǫll in Old Norse, is made up of a compound word, where Valr means ‘dead body on the battlefield’ and hǫll means ‘hall’. Valhalla, therefore, means the hall of the fallen warriors’ and is pronounced as “Val-HALL-uh”. According to Norse mythology, this is where half the souls of warriors slain in battle dwelled. The other half were believed to have been taken to Fólkvangr, where Freya’s hall was. Some scholars, however, contest that Fólkvangr could have been another name used to describe Valhalla.
From its many attestations, Valhalla is best described through the poem Grímnismál in Poetic Edda. It is said to be a vast hall with more than 600 rooms. The gates are said to be so wide that 800 soldiers would be able to walk through them side by side. The roof of the hall is made of thatched shields and spears were its rafters. Around the vast number of feasting tables are seats made of breastplates. The entrance is guarded by wolves and eagles that hover above them. This place was paradise and envy to many Viking warriors.
The souls of the fallen warriors were called Einherjar or lone fighters. They were considered the greatest army, made up of the best warriors and rulers who dies in battle. Every passing day, the Einherjar fought each other in battle. This was because they were practicing for Ragnarok when they would be called upon to fight alongside Odin and the other Norse deities. Their arms, legs, or even heads would get chopped off in the process, but it didn’t matter because they were immortal. By evening they would be restored to full health.
After a long day of battle and building up an enormous appetite, they would sit around the tables in the hall and enjoy a big feast with Odin. They would enjoy meat from Saehrimnir, the boar that came back to life every day after being slaughtered. They also enjoyed mead from Heidrun’s udder, a goat whose name’s meaning is unknown and were waited on by the Valkyries. Although Odin sat with them, he did not eat with them. He simply enjoyed their company and fed his share of the food to his two pet wolves and drank wine instead.
The Valhalla Symbol Mean
The Norse mythology is filled with a lot of symbols and many things, people, and places within it symbolize something. Valhalla is no exception. There is no actual symbol that’s named Valhalla in the myths but many believe that the Valknut symbol may be what was used to represent it. The reasoning behind it starts with the meaning of the word. The word is pronounced as ‘Val-knoot’ and is a Norwegian word that means the slain warriors knot, or otherwise the knot of slain warriors. Considering that Valhalla was where the souls of fallen soldiers were taken after the battle, the association would make sense. That may be why the symbol is found in many Viking gravestones.
The Valknut symbol is also associated with Odin, the All-father, god of war and death as well as the ruler of Valhalla. Once again by this reasoning, it is clear why the Valknut symbol was associated with Valhalla. One last reason was what the symbol represented. Aside from representing Odin and his power, the three connected triangles had a far more significant meaning. According to the Norse, the number three was very auspicious. It represented several things in life and the universe that had three aspects to it. Among them was its representation of fertility, reincarnation, and rebirth, all insinuations of the afterlife, which was what Valhalla was for the dead soldiers.
But the Valknut symbol aside, Valhalla in itself also represented a lot. For starters, it represented the Norse people’s views of life and death and the glorious afterlife they desired. Like in other religions that believed in heaven, Vikings believed Valhalla was the paradise that awaited them when they died. It makes sense, therefore, why dying with honor was something important to them, and why they would walk into the battlefield without fear. For them, it wasn’t a matter of living or dying, but how one died.
Valhalla also symbolizes the Vikings’ principles in life. While the Hel they believed in wasn’t a torturous place like the Christians’ version of Hell, it was a boring and uneventful place where nothing happened. This was a huge contrast to Valhalla where the departed got to fight all day and feast all evening. It goes to show that the Vikings saw being idle as the worst form of torture as opposed to fighting in battle.
Lastly, we believe that Valhalla represented immortality, or the eternity preached in the Christian religion. In Valhalla, no one died. Regardless of how severe their wounds were, the Einherjar would recover by evening and go back into battle the next day. Even the food they ate came from a boar who resurrected each day after being slaughtered. The only difference between Vikings’ concept of eternity and that of Christians, is that the Einherjar will eventually die once more during their final battle in Ragnarok.
Where Was Valhalla Located?
When it comes to figuring out the location of the great golden hall of the slain and fallen, there is a lot of dispute. Different groups believe that Valhalla could have either been here in the world or somewhere above or underground. The major consensus is that Valhalla is located in Asgard, home of the Aesir gods. It would make sense considering that it was Odin’s hall, the king of Asgard. To be more specific, the hall is described in Poetic Edda as Odin’s dwelling place found in Asgard, in a place called Glaðsheimr (the joyous home). Before the hall is said to be a tall golden tree called Glasir.
Other’s believe that Valhalla may have been somewhere underground. There are lines of evidence that seem to prove that the hall was located in the more general underworld. The biggest defining feature of the hall is the never-ending battle among the Einherjar that takes place there. In an account by Saxo Grammaticus, a Danish medieval historian, he describes the hero Hadding as having found such a place in the underworld. A place where the dead would spend their days in battle and their nights in merriment and feast.
As for those who believed that Valhalla may be or have been located somewhere on this earth, argue that once the Norse deities used to roam the earth, before settling in the region that is today known as Sweden. Furthermore, the name Valhöll, the hall of the fallen, seems to be related to Valhallr, the rock of the fallen. This is a place in Southern Sweden where there are certain hills and rocks where the dead were believed to have dwelled. It is now one of the greatest historic centers for Odin’s worship. So, to summarize, finding out where Valhalla was located will depend on the sources you read and which you choose to believe more. It could also be that Valhalla was a fictional place created by the Vikings to describe the afterlife.
How Did One Gain Entrance To Valhalla?
While it may have been every Viking warrior’s dream to end up in Valhalla, very few were granted this privilege. As you may know, one had to be a soldier slain in battle for them to gain entrance. If one happened to die of sickness or old age, then they would be automatically taken to Helheim or other halls of the dead. But even among the fallen soldiers, only half of them were picked and taken to Valhalla. So, it would seem that it wasn’t just enough to have died in battle for you to gain entrance.
If you were to dig deeper into the Norse myths and sagas, you will realize that Odin and his Valkyries didn’t just pick up fallen soldiers from battle and guide them to Valhalla. It would seem that they chose which soldier would die in battle. This makes sense considering Odin is the god of war and death. Furthermore, in the Poetic Edda, the poem Darraðarljóð, the hero Dörruðr is said to have seen twelve Valkyries in a hut close to the Battle of Clontarf. But the Valkyries were not waiting to pick up the dead soldiers, instead, they appeared to be weaving the warriors’ fates on an abominable loom made of human intestines, heads, arrows, and swords.
The fact that Odin choose who to die in battle meant can be explained by the reason why he was keeping their souls in Valhalla in the first place. The reason is that the Einherjar were meant to come to Odin’s aid during Ragnarok, where he was fated to die at the hands of Fenrir, the wolf. That is why, the Einherjar were made up of elite warriors and rulers, skilled in combat. That goes to show that there was more to just being a fallen warrior to be worthy of dwelling in the great golden halls.
So, what did it take to gain entrance into Valhalla? Aside from dying in battle, one had to have been an elite soldier, highly skilled in combat. Vikings also believed that the soldier had to have been Odin’s worshiper, which most Viking warriors and rulers were. They offered human sacrifices to him before and after battles and had rituals like throwing a spear overhead their enemies in honor of Odin. Even with all that, the Viking soldier had to have been brave and honorable in life and on the battlefield. Those found to be dishonorable would be banned from Valhalla, while those who passed the criteria would be welcomed with a horn full of mead, to join his fellow Einherjar in Valhalla.
Is Valhalla Heaven Or Hell?
When you think about the Christian concept of heaven and hell and compare it to the Vikings’, Valhalla appears to be closer to Heaven than Hel. Like Heaven, Vikings view Valhalla as a paradise they all desired to end up after their death. Despite that, Valhalla cannot be entirely considered to be Heaven. While there may be a few similarities between the two, there are many more differences.
The first difference would be how and who was permitted to enter Valhalla as compared to Heaven. As we’ve already discussed, gaining entrance to the great golden hall, required you to have died in battle. Even then you had to have been a brave, skilled, and elite soldier who lived and died honorably. To gain access to heaven, however, one should have led a righteous, selfless, and noble life void of sin. What Christians considered a life of sin, is what Vikings considered a life of honor. That was a life of battle and brutal killing.
Another contrast between the two is that while there is one heaven, Valhalla is not the only place where the fallen soldiers were taken. Half of the dead warriors were carried off to Freya’s dwelling in Fólkvangr. It is not clear what Freya did with them, but it is known that she also had her pick. This brings us to another difference, where Odin didn’t just pick the dead soldiers, he fated them to die in battle so his Valkyries could carry them to Valhalla. This is different from heaven where one died naturally due to illness, and their access was determined by the life they lived on earth.
Furthermore, while the dead were taken directly to Valhalla after they passed on, most Christians believe that you do not gain direct access to heaven until the end of the world. Before that the dead souls would remain in Purgatory. It was the opposite for the Einherjar, they would be taken directly to Valhalla where they would dwell until Ragnarok, the final battle they were meant to fight alongside Odin.
But even though there is a lot of difference between Valhalla and Heaven, it is further from the Christian concept of Hell. Unlike Hell where the souls would be burnt and tortured in an eternal flame, Valhalla is a place of merriment and feasting. Although one may think it was torture for the Einherjar to battle each other every day, war was something Viking warriors enjoyed, which is what made Valhalla a desirable paradise. Somewhere where they could fight to their heart’s content and never die. So, at the end of the day, Valhalla was neither Heaven nor Hell for the Vikings, it was simply the honorable place for a Viking warrior to end up after death.
The great and vast golden halls remain popular even today. It is one of the most unique concepts of the afterlife compared to many cultural and religious beliefs. There are many paintings, sculptures, poems, and other literary works that have attempted to depict Valhalla. The hall has also been incorporated into pop culture, in video games like Assassin’s Creed, the comic book series Valhalla, and the TV series, Vikings. There are even a temple in Germany and a garden in England named after it. So, even though it may not be clear whether Valhalla was a fictitious or real place, it is a fact that it impacted many people’s beliefs especially around, Germany, Sweden, Norway, and the like.