Dying into the Mountain

If you learned Old Norse religion from children’s book, as many of us did, you might have a too simplistic idea about the afterlife. Likely, you think most men were warriors so they went to Valhöll, Odin’s hall in Ásgard.

Maybe so, but there’s more difference of opinion among scholars than you might know, and there was probably also far more complexity.

The stories we have were recorded in Christian times, which makes them late and arguably unreliable to some degree. By the time they were written down the oral culture that produced them was already being transformed by new ideas imported from Romanized Christianity.

In pre-Christian times, it seems likely the Scandinavians had only a generalized idea of an underworld (“Hel“). This seems to have been the belief common among European cultures. The soul might or might not have been something separate from the body. No one is quite sure how much of that is due to Christian influence. Personally, I’m inclined to think our ancestors had a tripartite soul, so I tend to see it as body, soul, and spirit; three components separating at death. That’s a debate for another day.

Systematized ideas about the “Nine Worlds” and the halls of different gods probably date to Christian times, and probably evolved in response to Christian notions of Heaven and Hell.

In pre-Christian times the dead went to live underground, in burial mounds (or somewhere near the place of interment). If the soul separated from the body, it was probably not a far separation, perhaps only as far as the nearest burial mound or mountain. Rudolf Simek (2007) says some mountains in southern Sweden that were believed to house the dead were called Valhall. Their relationship to Odin’s hall is not clear.

For our ancestors, the dead were the alfar (“elves”), to whom offerings were made. They evolved into genii locorum (“spirits of place”) who go by various names now; tomtar, nisser, brownies, and so on. These protective beings represented the first farmer to clear the forest and establish the homestead there.

The story of Þórolfr Mostrarskegg in Eyrbyggja saga, although very late, shows how this belief might have worked in practice. Þórolfr was a pioneer of Iceland. He gave Helgafell (“Holy Mountain”) its name and designated it as a sacred place. He believed he and his descendants would “die into the mountain.” That is, they would go to live inside the mountain when they died. Notice: in death they do not travel back to Norway to join their ancestors there. Instead, they pioneer a death-place in the new land.

This story is said to have been confirmed when Þórolfr’s son Þorsteinn drowned. A local fisherman saw the mountain open up, and heard Þórolfur welcoming Þorsteinn to the feast that was taking place inside.

So, what about a separable soul? Again, Eyrbyggja saga is a late and potentially unreliable source. We have a drowned man, one whose body was apparently not recovered, yet he joins his father in their family’s holy mountain. His soul must have separated from his body. Was it that way in the original? We don’t know. It could be Christian influence. Or not.

Many of my neo-pagan friends are attached to their ideas about Valhöll and Fólkvangr, and all that. Too much glitter for me. Aesthetically, I far prefer the idea dying into the land, or — since I live in Denver — dying into the mountain. Presumably Mt. Evans. There’s something very basic here that transcends both historical pedantry and romanticized fantasy.

Related Post

  • Swanstrom, Justin. “Viking Mortuary House.” Under a Western Sky <underawesternsky.wordpress.com>, Oct. 21, 2019. Retrieved Dec. 1, 2019.

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