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Novel Gnosi part 37: Valkyries and the Afterlife

Valkyries are psychopomps, beings who carry the dead to the afterlife. They are called choosers of the slain, because they select warriors who die in battle to bring to Freya in Folkvangr or to Odin in Valhalla. Freya is the leader of the Valkyries and gets first pick. When the Valkyries are not attending a battle, they are found with Odin and the Einherjar, Odin's chosen warriors, in Valhalla.

The Fireverse Valkyries mostly have war duties. Although any of them might serve someone a drink in Valhalla, it’s not really exclusively Valkyries who do that. Odin has many dead humans for servants, and some of them are dead women who are basically Valkyrie themed waitresses rather than actual Valkyries. The actual Valkyries are unearthly powers.

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The Afterlife in Asatru

In Asatru, and many other sects of heathenry, we believe the soul has multiple parts, and that some of these parts can go on to an afterlife, while other parts can be reincarnated. The soul part that corresponds with the personality and memory can go either way, and it can also reach oblivion before being recycled / reincarnated. Other parts of the soul complex can go on, be reincarnated, or just stop. Actions one can take on Earth can affect this outcome. If one is going on to an afterlife, there are many possible afterlife destinations, some of which are here on Earth—which we call Midgard—and some of which are in other worlds / other dimensions.

Some people have been sharing a meme based on a Wikipedia page on one sect of heathenry, "Norse Paganism," thinking that it applies to all sects. It does not apply to Asatru. The page, and the meme, is divided into 4 sections, labeled Valhalla, Folkvangr, Helgafjell, and Helheim. The sections on Valhalla and Folkvangr are not bad. Those realms are the two places where the battle slain go, to Odin in Valhalla within Gladsheim and to Freya in Sessrumnir within Folkvangr.

The section on Hel gets Hel wrong. Hel is not a place of punishment. It's just the world of the dead. Christians used the word Hel to translate their word for the realm of the dead, just like they used the word godh (god) to translate their word for God. Both words ended up having Christian connotations in modern English, but the original heathen Hel had as much resemblance to the Christian Hell as original heathen god has to Christian God. Rather than a place of punishment, Hel or Helheim is the catch-all, or default realm. It is ruled by Hel, or Hela. Hel the goddess and Hel the place have the same name for the same reason that Normandy is the name of a land and a Duke.

Helgafjel is an obscure place name that most heathens don't even recognize. Is it a place within Hel, or a mountain on Earth? It can be argued that all grave mounds are simultaneously on this earth and in the realm of the dead. There is a real place in Iceland called Helgafell, meaning "holy mountain." The place spelled Helgafjel also means "holy mountain," but it may not have been the same place. It may have been in Norway, in which case, it is now named something else, since it no longer appears on any maps. Either way, Helgafjel was a real physical mountain, and the belief in Helgafjel was a local belief in a mountain in which the dead of a particular set of linked families or the dead of a particular locality went. The page is specific to a sect of heathenry where the people lived within sight of the mountain. The meme makers have mistaken it for a generalized belief across heathen cultures (that is, pagan cultures which worshipped the gods generally called the Norse gods.) As a physical place where the dead are said to reside, this then is a type of mound-dead belief, even though there is no evidence the mountain was actually used as a burial site. The dead in a specific mountain, mound, ship burial, graveyard, etc. are specific dead people with names, usually people who lived in the area.

Historically, the line between the mound-dead and the mound-elf was fuzzy. Freyr as king of Alfheim (elf home) may have had an aspect in which he was also king of the male dead ancestors. His sister Freya may have had an aspect as queen of the female dead ancestors, as indicated by her name Vanadis, goddess of the disir (female ancestral spirits.)

Other possible afterlife destinations include the home of Thor, who may have been considered to collect farmers in historical times, although the word used in the lore was a more general word for the non-warrior caste. The goddess Ran collects the drowned dead. Frigga (or Frau Holle) collects the souls of dead children; this is the meaning of Mother Night, when the Dark Mother rides the Wild Hunt. In an earlier time, when Tyr was king, his wife Zisa collected the dead in her war-boat. Gefjon, who may be an aspect of Freya, is said to collect the souls of unmarried women. Many if not most of the heathen pantheon have halls where they house the souls of dead humans.

In historical times, people who wanted to go to a specific god tried to live their lives in such a way that they would be likely to die doing the god’s special thing, such as sailing. Some heathens today also do this, although others believe that devotion to a god as a priest or other type of specialist opens the way to that god.

Naming customs also can affect the afterlife, but it affects the afterlife of the named person, although this is a bit complicated. The soul part in which talents reside is not the same as the soul part that contains memories, so when someone names a child after their grandfather hoping to gain grandfather’s musical talents, that does not necessarily draw the memory part; it is possible for grandfather to both be reborn in his line and stay with his god in the afterlife at the same time. On the other hand, if one names a child after a friend specifically to honor that friend who is still alive, no part of the still alive person’s soul is transferred at the ceremony, but it is possible for part of the soul to arrive later, upon the death of the other party, as the shared name opens the way between them.

Historical heathen cultures spanned a great deal of time over a great many places. Some heathens spoke languages that other heathens from other times and places would not understand. Modern heathens in America usually draw their heathenry from a wide variety of cultures, although some of them can be as local and specific as their European counterparts.

Image: Valknut, fiber art by Erin Lale

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Where Poets Go

After my 2 wedding visions, I was no longer sure where I would go when I die. For 25 years I had expected to go to Freya in Folkvangr. I had previously had a brief glimpse of Odin appearing to me at death, as I related in my post Seeing My Own Death in the Runes, but I had not really thought that I would go to him because I thought his humans went to Valhalla, and Valhalla was only for the battle dead. I don't expect to die in battle, and I would not really want to join the army after death anyway, and that's what going to Valhalla means. It's not Heaven or Paradise, it's a training base for the Last War. It did not sound appealing to me. 

I didn't want to fight on the other side either. I had always expected to sit out the Last War, as Freya's dead humans are not prophesied to participate in it. I always pictured Folkvangr as a place where both battle dead and some other types of people went. And cats. I pictured cats.

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  • Anthony Gresham
    Anthony Gresham says #
    I once read that we lay our path through the afterlife in the dreams we have while living. If that's true then I have two or thre
Pagan News Beagle: Faithful Friday, March 4

We take a look at the pre-Christian beliefs of the Mari people in Russia. A progressive Christian discusses their feelings about the afterlife. And Buddhist writer Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche explains the conversion process for his religion. It's Faithful Friday, our weekly news segment about religious communities and faiths around the world. All this and more for the Pagan News Beagle!

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Animal Souls

There's very little about animal afterlife in heathen mythology, and it's all pretty tenuous. There is a vague idea of sea dogs on Nehellenia's boat, the dog and oar being two of her symbols, in addition to the cornucopia. Some consider her to be the same goddess as Zisa. The boat may be a symbol of the afterlife journey, that is, boat as psychopomp. That would be consistent with using boats in funerals and with making boat shaped graves, both of which are historical practices. So, a dog and boat depicted together could be interpreted to mean that dogs which traveled with warriors at sea accompany them to their afterlife. As I said, pretty tenuous. Unfortunately the written lore is only a tiny piece of what the ancients would have known.

I've always liked the idea of the multipartite soul from the moment I first read about it. The idea is that there are many parts to the soul, parts that can go on to an afterlife, parts that return in the family line or in someone named after one, parts that are recycled into something completely different, parts that just stop, in an individual sense, but go on everywhere else (breath, for example, just stops for the individual, but that doesn't affect the idea of breath, or anyone else's breath.) I don't know if animals are just like people in that way or not. I think they do have souls, though, based on my gnosis. 

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May you spend the eternity…

May you spend lifetime with your gods, pleased with you without displaying anger.
May your reward be received after old age.
[…]
May you enter your tomb of the necropolis and mingle with the excellent Bas. May you be judged among them and be declared righteous in Busiris before Wennefer and be well established in Abydos before Shu-Onuris.
May you cross over to the district of Peqer in the god’s retinue and cross the divine region in the retinue of Sokar.
May you join the crew of the Neshmet barque without being turned away. May you see the sun in the sky when it initiates the year.
[…]
May you be triumphant in the sky, a shining one.
[…]
 May you transform yourself into whatever you wish, like the phoenix, with each of your forms being that of a god, just as you desire.

—    Quoted from: Ancient Egyptian Tombs: The Culture of Life and Death © 2011 Steven Snape.(Translation from Papyrus Anastasi I, based on that of Wente 1990:100-1 (Wente,E.(1990) “Letters from Ancient Egypt”)




Is your ultimate idea of paradise to spend your eternity with chosen deity, to enter the sacred marriage, hierogamy of the soul? Some people follow the path of spells that will make them take permanent residence on the fields of Offerings with Osiris but Coffin text spells of the Book of the Two Ways were written especially for "hermopolitan devotion". The selected few CT spells are precisely aimed at making your residence "in the mansion of the Moon" and joining the suite of all devotees of Djehuty who want to "admire his beauty all the time". And why wouldn’t you? When you start a devotional relationship with a deity, it means you align your soul and desires with that deity’s values and personality - and, with all deep and core aspects, not simply something that lies on the surface. You undergo a transformation with each divinity you touch.

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There is a quite different argument against abortion I have heard from several Pagan women.  I am more sympathetic to it than to the usual “fetus is human” claim that I demolished in my previous post.   Even so, I think it ultimately fails, though it does complicate a woman’s decision.

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