Death and Afterlife in Norse Paganism

in May 17, 2024

Few subjects fascinate the human mind so much as its own mortality. Most – if not all – monotheistic religions preach of rewards or punishments for the good and the wicked in the afterlife, but things may not be so straightforward with the Norse faith.

Alessio Sordini Helheim

One of the most inconvenient facts about Norse religion is that most of it was transmitted orally, and thus a great deal was simply lost to time.

Few items are agreed upon by most sources, such as the spirit or soul living on after the death of the body. The concept of absolute good or evil did not exist. Allfather Odin often enjoyed some form of deception and never showed any qualms about doing some “dirty” work to achieve his objectives, while Loki the trickster saved Asgard several times (often from something he caused in the first place).

The very concept of eternal “salvation” or “damnation” is alien to the Norse faith and even rebirth is mentioned in the sagas. There is only one late Old Norse poem that mentions a place of punishment after death: Nastrond (Old Norse Náströdr, “shore of corpses”), but the poem in question (Völuspá) is rife with Christian influence.


The beyond:


Fólkvangr is found in the Icelandic Eddas and in Egil’s Saga. It is described as one of the places for people who die in battle. It belongs to the Goddess Freyja, who is said to have the first pick of fallen warriors before Odin. The name of Freyja’s hall proper is Sessrumnir. Read more about Freyja and Fólkvangr here



Odin’s hall for warriors who fell on the battlefield. These warriors were gathered up by Valkyries to become einherjar, warriors training to fight for Odin during the doomed war, Ragnarök. The einherjar would spend their afterlives feasting and skirmishing until this day. Read more about Valhalla and the Einherjar here.

 Valhalla, by Max Brückner, 1896.

Rán’s Hall

Those who died at sea were thought to rest in Rán’s watery abode at the bottom of the ocean, not an uncommon occurrence during the Viking age.



Hel, or Helheim, is the Norse underworld, the place where people go when they die of old age or sickness. It’s not a bad place, but it’s also not described by Snorri as being particularly delightful either.

"Hel" is the name for both the Norse goddess of death and her abode in Niflheim, the world of darkness. According to a very dramatic and clearly Christian rooted description from Snorri Sturluson: “Her Hall is called Éljúðnir (“dank”); her plate is called Hungr (“hunger”); her knife is Sulltr (“famine”); her serving man is Gangláti (“the slow one”); her serving maid is Ganglöt (also meaning “the slow one”); her home’s threshold is called Fallanda forað (“stumbling block”); her bed is Kör (“illness”); and her bed curtains are called Blinkjanda böl (“pale misfortune”).”

The underworld of Helheim is located in the north, the direction of death in Scandinavian folklore. It’s separated from the realm of the living by the river Gjöll, which is spanned by the gilded bridge Gjallarbrú. The sound of a living crossing this bridge is deafening compared to the footsteps of the dead. The road to Hel is guarded by a wolf called Garm.

According to Snorri, Helheim is comprised of nine realms, but he never described all of them. One of them, however, is Náströnd, which is where the worst of human offenders go.

This clearly Christian description of Hel is at odds with many passages of the Eddas, such as when Hermodr visits Hel to bargain for Baldr’s release from death, and finds that Baldr is an honored guest and seems to be quite happy in the halls of the dead. Read more about Helheim, the realm of Hel here.


There is one late Old Norse poem that mentions a place of punishment after death: Nastrond (Old Norse Náströdr, “shore of corpses”). Its gate faces north, poison drips from its ceiling, and snakes coil on its floor. The dragon Nidhoggr lives there, and drains the blood of all newcomers to the realm wile spending most of his time cheweing on Yggdrasil roots. The poem depicting Nastrond is the Völuspá, but unfortunately a great deal of Christian influence can be easily identified in it. Given how different Nastrond is amongst the other Norse ideas of what happened to a person after death, it too, surely derives from Christian depictions of Hell.


Andlang & Vidblain

These are heavenly realms mentioned by Snorri. Vidblain in particular would protect people from Surtr’s fires during Ragnarök, but until then these heavens are reserved for the Alvar, or elven folk. On a sidenote, the God Freyr is said to live in Alfheim, which is also the realm of the elves, according to the poem Gylfaginning.



A shining heavenly hall that would rise up after all else was destroyed during Ragnarök.



The Holy Mountain, where people go to be reunited with their ancestors. Perhaps the hall that most closely resembles the old animistic view of the Norse afterlife.



Some sources also speak of the dead being reborn in one of their descendants. Here as well, the sources are unclear as to how exactly this would happen, but oftentimes the dead person is reincarnated in someone who is named after him or her. A clear example of rebirth can be found in The Saga of Olaf the Holy, one of the first Christian kings of Norway. Olaf and a servant ride past the burial mound of the king’s ancestor and namesake, who is now called by the name of Óláfr Geirstaðaálfr – literally “Olaf, the Elf of Geirstad,” a title that clearly implies the currently elfin state of the king’s forefather. The same passage also insinuates that King Olaf is the reincarnation of the deceased Olaf, showing that the dead could be thought to have multiple fates simultaneously.

Ängsälvor - Nils Blommér 1850


The afterlife is almost always seen as a continuation of life on the other side. An honorable life continues honorable on the thereafter, and we all want to make our ancestors proud. Honor is its own reward.




Blaine, Jenny. 2016. Wights and Ancestors: Heathenry in a Living Landscape. Prydein Press. ISBN-13 978-0995507401

Simek, Rudolf. 2007 (1993). Translated by Angela Hall. Dictionary of Northern Mythology. D.S. Brewer. ISBN 0-85991-513-1

Orchard, Andy. 1997. Dictionary of Norse Myth and Legend. Cassell. ISBN 0-304-34520-2

Jesse Byock (2005) Snorri Sturluson, The Prose Edda. 1st. edition. London, England: Penguin Books Ltd. ISBN-13 978-0-140-44755-2

Faulkes, Anthony. Edda. Trans. 1982. Oxford University Press. ISBN-13: 9781389651922

Daniel McCoy. 2016. The Viking Spirit: An Introduction to Norse Mythology and Religion. 1st edition. CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform. ISBN-13 978-1533393036

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