The Myth and Reality of Valhalla: A Guide for Modern Pagans
Valhalla: The Hall of the Fallen in Norse Mythology
Norse mythology is the body of myths belonging to the North Germanic peoples, stemming from Old Norse religion and continuing after the Christianization of Scandinavia, and into the Nordic folklore of the modern period. One of the most prominent and fascinating elements of Norse mythology is the concept of Valhalla, the hall where the god Odin houses the dead whom he deems worthy of dwelling with him. In this article, we will explore what Valhalla is, how one can enter it, what its purpose is, and how it has influenced popular culture.
What is Valhalla?
Valhalla is the anglicised name for Old Norse: Valhǫll, which means "hall of the slain". It is described as a majestic hall located in Asgard, the realm of the gods, and presided over by Odin, the chief god and ruler of Asgard.
The origin and meaning of the name Valhalla
The name Valhalla derives from two Old Norse words: valr, which means "the slain", and hǫll, which means "hall". The word valr has cognates in other Germanic languages, such as Old English wæl, which means "the slain, slaughter, carnage", and Old High German wal-dād, which means "murder". These words all descend from the Proto-Germanic noun *walaz, which refers to those who die in battle. The word hǫll is a common Old Norse noun that means "covered place, hall", and is cognate to Modern English hall. It developed from Proto-Germanic *xallō or *hallō, which in turn derived from Proto-Indo-European *kol-, meaning "to cover, conceal".
The name Valhalla thus conveys the idea of a hall where those who die in combat are hidden or protected by Odin. Some scholars have suggested that the hǫll element may also derive from hallr, which means "rock", and that Valhalla originally referred to an underworld or a cave where the dead were buried. However, this theory is not widely accepted.
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The location and description of Valhalla
Valhalla is located in Asgard, one of the Nine Worlds that make up the cosmology of Norse mythology. Asgard is the home of the Æsir, one of the two tribes of gods in Norse mythology (the other being the Vanir). Asgard is connected to Midgard, the world of humans, by a rainbow bridge called Bifröst.
Valhalla is depicted as a splendid palace, roofed with shields and spears, where the warriors feast on the flesh of a boar named Sæhrímnir that is slaughtered daily and made whole again each evening. They also drink mead that flows from the udder of a goat named Heiðrún. The hall has 540 doors, each wide enough for 800 warriors to march out side by side by side. The hall is guarded by wolves and eagles, and surrounded by the golden tree Glasir.
The inhabitants and activities of Valhalla
The inhabitants of Valhalla are called einherjar, which means "those who fight alone" or "those who belong to an army". They are the warriors who died in battle and were chosen by Odin to join him in his hall. They are accompanied by their wives or lovers, who are called valkyries, which means "choosers of the slain". The valkyries are female figures who serve Odin as messengers and escorts of the dead.
The einherjar spend their days fighting each other in a never-ending battle, as a way of training for the final conflict of Ragnarök, the doom of the gods. They use weapons and armor that are provided by Odin. They do not suffer any permanent harm or death, as they are healed every night by the magic of Valhalla. They also enjoy games, contests, and poetry.
How does one enter Valhalla?
Not every warrior who dies in battle can enter Valhalla. There are certain criteria and conditions that must be met, and some alternatives and exceptions that exist. The main factor that determines who can enter Valhalla is the will of Odin, who has the final say in choosing his guests. However, he is not the only one who has a role in this process.
The role of the valkyries in choosing the slain
The valkyries are the agents of Odin who fly over the battlefield and select the most brave and worthy warriors to join him in Valhalla. They are often depicted as beautiful women riding on horses or flying with wings, armed with spears and shields. They have the power to decide the outcome of a battle, by giving victory or defeat to the warriors they favor or disfavor.
The valkyries have different names and personalities, and some of them are associated with specific aspects of war or death. For example, Skuld means "future" and is also a Norn, one of the three female beings who control the destiny of gods and men. Rota means "sleet" or "storm" and is also a name for fate or fortune. Gunnr means "war" and is also a name for a battle-maiden or a female warrior.
The criteria and conditions for admission to Valhalla
The main criterion for admission to Valhalla is to die in battle with honor and courage, while fighting for a noble cause or a personal ideal. This does not necessarily mean that the warrior has to be on the right side of history or morality, but rather that he has to follow his own code of conduct and loyalty. For example, Odin himself is often portrayed as a trickster and a manipulator, who causes wars and conflicts for his own benefit or amusement.
Another condition for admission to Valhalla is to be noticed and chosen by a valkyrie, who may have her own preferences or biases. Sometimes, a warrior may have a special relationship with a valkyrie, such as love or friendship, which may influence her decision. For example, Sigurd, the hero of the Völsunga saga, was loved by Brynhildr, a valkyrie who was cursed by Odin to sleep in a ring of fire until a brave man would rescue her.
A third condition for admission to Valhalla is to be accepted by Odin himself, who has the ultimate authority over his hall. Sometimes, Odin may reject a warrior who meets the other criteria, because he has other plans or motives for him. For example, Baldr, the son of Odin and Frigg, was killed by a mistletoe arrow that was guided by Loki, the trickster god and enemy of the Æsir. Baldr was beloved by all the gods and men, and was destined to return after Ragnarök. However, Odin did not allow him to enter Valhalla because he wanted him to go to Hel, the realm of the dead, where he would rule as a king until his return.
The alternatives and exceptions to Valhalla
Valhalla is not the only destination for the dead in Norse mythology. There are other places where the souls of the deceased may go, depending on various factors. Some of these places are:
Fólkvangr: This is another hall in Asgard, where the goddess Freyja receives half of those who die in battle. The other half goes to Valhalla. Freyja is the goddess of love, beauty, fertility, and war, and she has the right to choose first among the slain. Fólkvangr means "field of the people" or "field of the army".
Hel: This is the realm of the dead, where most of those who die of old age, sickness, or other natural causes go. It is located in Niflheim, one of the Nine Worlds, and it is ruled by Hel, the daughter of Loki and a giantess. Hel is a gloomy and cold place, where the dead live in misery and despair. Hel also means "hidden" or "concealed" in Old Norse.
Valhöll: This is a hall in Hel, where some of those who die in battle go instead of Valhalla or Fólkvangr. It is a place of dishonor and shame, where the dead are tormented by a dragon named Níðhöggr, who gnaws at their corpses. Valhöll means "hall of the dishonored" or "hall of the corpses".
There are also some exceptions to the rule that only those who die in battle can enter Valhalla. Some examples are:
Eiríkr Bloodaxe: He was a legendary king of Norway and Northumbria, who was known for his many battles and raids. He died in battle against King Maccus of the Isles in 954 CE. However, he was also a Christian convert, and his wife Gunnhildr had him buried in a churchyard in England. According to a saga, Odin was angry that Eiríkr did not die as a pagan, and he sent a valkyrie named Skögul to fetch him from his grave and bring him to Valhalla.
Hákon the Good: He was another king of Norway, who was the son of Harald Fairhair, the first king of Norway. He was a Christian convert as well, but he was tolerant of paganism and respected by