Cattle die, kinsmen die


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Death and the Afterlife in the Norse Tradition

  1. “Cattle die, kinsmen die”: reputation and immortality.

Cattle die, and kinsmen die,

And so one dies oneself;

But a noble name will never die,

If good renown one gets.
Cattle die, and kinsmen die,

And so one does oneself;

One thing I know that never dies,

The fame of a dead man’s deeds.

-Havamal, Poetic Edda


Howes (burial mounds) and rune-stones were raised to honor and remember the dead. Howes were sometimes cenotaphs, i.e., the howe was important even when there was no body to bury, and howes were also raised over cremated remains. Howes were usually in prominent places or else on family land. Runestones were not grave-markers, but memorial stones raised in public places.

According to “Ynglinga saga”, Odhin introduced cremation to his people, but he also emphasized memorials:
They should bear the ashes out to sea or bury them in the earth; for a renowned man they should build a howe as a mark of remembrance, and for all men in whom there was some manliness they should raise standing-stones.
-Heimskringla, p. 6.


With baseness never thy life is burdened,

Hero noble, hold that sure;

Lofty as long as the world shall live,

Battle-bringer, thy name shall be.
-Gripisspa, Poetic Edda

To have one’s name remembered was a form of immortality. Descendants were named for ancestors, partly in hopes that they would inherit or take on characteristics of their namesakes, but also to keep the name alive. Ancestors might be angered if their names were not passed on.

Sometimes, a name was even passed to someone outside the family. In The Road to Hel (p. 141), Hilda R. Ellis describes a passage from Finnboga Saga:

Finnbogi… begs his friend to accept his name while he lies dying, for then, he says, ‘I know that my name will be known while the earth is inhabited.’

        1. Funerary Customs

Viking Age funerary customs could be fit into three major categories.

A.Burial. The most common form of inhumation was the mound burial (howe). Less common were stone cairns, and even flat graves, similar to the ones in modern cemeteries. During the Viking Age many grave goods were interred with the corpse. The kinds of grave goods buried with the dead include weapons, armor, spindles, tools, drinking vessels, food, horses, dogs or even slaves.

There is also much evidence from the Norse Sagas which describe burial, for example:

“A man is there lost,” said Thorgrim, “to whom we are all bound to show respect, and we are bound to give him burial with the greatest honour, and build a mound for him; and it is true to say that such a man is a great loss.”
Gisli now prepares, with all his men, to bury Vestein in the sandhill that stands beside the rush-pond below Saebol… They did everything for Vestein as the ways they were, and then Thorgrim went to Vestein and spoke. “It is a custom,” he says, “to tie Hel-shoes on men which they should walk in to Valhall, and I shall do that for Vestein.” And when he had done so he said: “I do not know how to tie Hel-shoes, if these come loose.”

Gisli’s Saga pp. 18-19

B.Ship Burial: Ship Burials are really a (large) subset of mound burials. In ship burials, a complete, usually functional boat is interred with the dead. These boats range from the huge ship at Sutton Hoo (28 meters long) to smaller vessels barely larger than modern coffins. Many times, the ship’s prow faces the sea, or a river, and sometimes the ship seems to be weighted down with stones, as if to prevent the ship from returning to the land of the living.

The aforementioned Sutton Hoo ship burial is one of the most widely known and spectacular examples of its kind. This richly adorned ship, discovered in one of a series of mounds in Suffolk, was likely prepared for a king circa 630 C.E. The ornamented weapons and armor were likely only ceremonial, and the clothing and jewelry were all of great quality.

The 21 meter long Osberg ship, discovered in Southern Norway, contained the bodies of two women as well as a number of tools and other grave goods, including the famous Osberg Cart.
There are many other less sensational ship burials, including a 3 meter long boat in which a child was interred with a pair of drinking horns. Another individual at the same site in Skane buried in a small boat with weapons, a spindle whorl, and a horse’s head.
Also of interest are the large number of runestones and grave markers that bear images of ships. In addition, there are several graves that have the outline of a ship marked in stones on the ground, although there need not necessarily be ships interred with the body within the grave itself.

C.Cremation: Cremation was especially popular in the years before the conversion of Scandinavia to Christianity, and was done in a number of different ways, including:

  • cremation and dispersal of the ashes

  • cremation and inhumation of the ashes

  • cremation and subsequent inhumation of the ashes within an intact ship

  • cremation of a body and ship together

Eyrbyggja Saga describes the cremation of Thorolf Twisted Foot:

“… they built a great pyre there, set fire to it, put Thorolf in it and burnt him to ashes. Even so, it took the fire a long time to have any effect on Thorolf. A fierce gale had blown up, so as soon as the corpse began to burn the ashes were scattered everywhere, but all that they could get hold of they threw into the sea.”

In the prologue to the Eddic poem “Helreidh Brynhildar”, the cremation of the heroes Sigurd and Brynhild is retold:

“After the death of Brynhild two funeral pyres were made, one for Sigurth, and one that one was kindled first, but the other, Brynhild was burned, and she was laid in a wain which was lined with cloth of gold. It is said that Brynhild rode in this wain on her way to Hel.”

The Prose Edda describes the cremation at sea of the god Balder, and his wife Nanna:

…they sent to Giantland for a giantess called Hyrrokkin. And when she arrived, riding a wolf and using vipers as reins, she dismounted from her steed, and Odin summonned four berserks to look after the mount, and they were unable to hold it without knocking him down. Then Hyrrokkin went to the prow of the boat and pushed it out with the first touch so that flames flew from the rollers and all the lands quaked…Then Baldr’s body was carried out onto the ship, and when his wife Nanna, Nep’s daughter, saw this she collapsed with grief and died. She was carried onto the pyre and it was set fire to. Then Thor stood and consecrated the pyre with Miollnir…

This burning was attended by beings of many different kinds: firstly to tell of was Odin, that with him went Frigg and valkyries and his ravens, while Freyr drove in a chariot with a boar called Gullinbursti or Slidrugtanni. But Heimdall rode a horse called Gulltrop, and Freyia her cats. There also came a great company of frost-giants and mountain-giants. Odin laid on the pyre a gold arm-ring called Draupnir…Baldr’s horse was led on to the pyre with all its harness.

Prose Edda p. 49
It should be mentioned, however, that there is no archeological evidence for ship cremations at sea (though there is evidence for such cremations on land).

D. Inferences about belief

        1. Halls of the Gods.

A. Odhin and Valhall

  1. Primary lore about Valhall and the Einherjar.

The image of Valhall, where the slain warriors known as Einherjar fight by day and feast by night until Ragnarok, is one of the best-known in Northern lore. Most of our information about Valhall comes from the Eddic poem “Grimnismal”; a copy of Bellow’s translation is provided as a separate handout. Snorri’s description in the Prose Edda is a systematization and expansion of the material in “Grimnismal” and a few verses of other Eddic lays.

2. Who gets in?
The idea that has captured popular imagination is that only those who die in battle go to Odhin in Valhall. There is some support for this in the lore (as well as in such respected academic sources as Kirk Douglas’ film “The Vikings”), and “Ynglinga saga” actually states that Odhin “dedicated to himself all men who died through weapons” (Heimskringla, p. 6).
However, we also have a number of examples of people who died in other ways (poisoning, drowning, being cast into a snake-pit) who were definitely thought to have gone to Valhall. We also know of those slain by weapons, including Odhin’s own son Baldr, who went to Hel’s hall rather than Valhall. What does seem consistent is that Valhall was reserved for the elite, which in those days meant the nobility.

  1. Connection between Valhall and the burial-mound.

It has been noted that some descriptions of Valhall sound very much like poetic descriptions of the well-equipped interior of a noble’s burial mound. The “everlasting battle” of Valhall’s warriors is also encountered in other contexts in Norse literature, including within burial mounds. In Njal’s Saga (see IV.C.2, below), Gunnar is described as inhabiting his howe and also as wielding his halberd in Valhall, and nobody in the saga seems troubled by inconsistency.

Yet, in the last section of the Eddic poem “Helgakvitha Hundingsbana II”, the dead Helgi is granted one night together with his living love Sigrun in the mound, then he must depart to join the Einherjar:
Now must I ride the reddened ways,

And my bay steed set to tread the sky;

Westward I go to wind-helm’s bridges,

Ere Salgofnir wakes the warrior throng.

(The full text of this extraordinary encounter is provided as a separate handout.)

B. Hel

  1. Primary Lore.

Three roots do spread in threefold ways

beneath the ash Yggdrasil

dwell etins 'neath one, 'neath the other, Hel,

'neath the third; Midgardh's men."
Grimnismal 31 (Hollander translation)

Unfortunately, the most descriptive passages about Hel (both the dwelling place, and the goddess of the same name), come from the Prose Edda (kindly see the separate handout entitled “Descriptions from Hel from the Prose Edda”), and may be clouded by the Judeo-Christian concept of Hell (Gehenna). These vivid descriptions of Hel aren’t found anywhere else in the lore. As Hilda Davidson points out in the Road to Hel, “The idea that those who enter her realm have died of sickness and old age sounds like an attempt to reconcile the tradition with the description he has given of Valholl, especially since the one detailed picture he himself gives us of Hel consists of the story of the entry of Balder within her gates, who died neither of old age or sickness" (83-84). Nanna (Baldr’s wife) is also well received in Hel, as she and her husband are able to speak with Hermod and give him gifts. It is important to note that one of the gifts Baldr gives Hermod to pass onto Odin is the ring Draupnir, which Odin had originally placed on Baldr’s funeral pyre. There was a genuine belief that the grave goods either burned or buried with the dead survived the trip into the afterlife.

C. The halls of other god/desses

        1. The quick and the dead

A. Honoring the dead.

  1. Funerals.

Funerals were a duty owed by the living to the dead. Key elements were providing a funeral, at which gifts were given and toasts were drunk to the departed, and raising a howe. A poem written in remembrance of the dead person was a special honor. Lavish funerals were remembered and praised:

Hjalti, son of Thord Skalp… made his home at Hof…. The most magnificent funeral feast ever to be held in Iceland was the one his sons celebrated in honour of their father; there were about 1440 guests, and all the important people were presented with gifts when they left. At this feast Odd of Breidafjord declaimed a dirge he’d composed in honor of Hjalti.
-Landnamabok 207
The funeral was also the usual time that the heirs would take up their inheritance; for example, a son would sit in his fathers high-seat for the first time at the funeral feast.

  1. Offerings to the dead.

Sacrifices were made to the dead in howe, and these offerings were strongly associated with the fertility of the land and good harvests. In Snorri’s euhemeristic treatment of the gods, Frey, the Vanic god of abundance, is honored in just this way:

So Frey took the rule after Niord; he was called Drott (or Sovereign) of the Swedes and took scot from them; he had many friends and brought good seasons like his father… In his days began the peace of Frode; then there was also a good season over all the land. The Swedes gave Frey credit for it, and he therefore was much more worshipped than the other gods, as the land folk in his days became richer on account of peace and good seasons than ever before… Frey then fell sick, and as he neared death, his men took counsel, and let few men come to him; and they built a great howe with a door and three holes in it. And when Frey was dead they bore him in loneliness to the howe, and told the Swedes that he was still alive; they watched him then for three years, and all scot they hid down in the howe, in one hole the gold, in another the silver, and in the third copper pennies. The good seasons and peace continued… When all the Swedes marked that Frey was dead, but that good seasons and peace still continued, they believed that it would be so, so long as Frey was in Sweden; therefore, they would not burn him, but called him god of the earth, and ever after sacrificed to him, most of all for good seasons and peace.

-Heimskringla, pp. 7-8
Several historical kings with notably prosperous reigns were honored in the same way. In one case, this was done despite the vehement dying wish of the king himself that he not be offered sacrifices in times of famine.
B. Disir.
The disir are female spirits who take an interest in particular families. They have been identified with the Matronae (tribal mothers) honored in numerous inscriptions from regions where Germanic tribespeople came into contact with classical Rome.
There is some indication that the disir are the spirits of dead kinswomen. The strongest evidence for this idea comes from the story of “Thidrandi Whom the Goddesses [disir] Slew.” Thorhall, renowned as a seer, is filled with foreboding at a harvest feast and forbids everyone to go outside that night at the beginning of winter. When all are asleep, Thidrandi hears a noise and goes outside. There he is attacked by nine dark women on horseback; nine bright women ride toward him, but the dark women reach him first. At daybreak, Thirdrandi dies of his wounds and is laid in howe. Thorhall gives this interpretation to Thidrandi’s father Hall:
These women can have been none other than the wraiths of you and your kinsfolk. And I guess too that there will be a change of faith among us… I believe these spirits of you who have followed the old faith must have known beforehand of your changing, and how they would be rejected of you and yours. They could not bear to exact no toll of you before parting, and will have seized on Thidrandi as their due; but the better spirits must have wished to help him, but did not arrive in time.” [These “better” women, he foretells, will assist the family members who adopt Christianity.]

Generally, the disir are only seen as destructive in cases like Thidrandi’s, where the family abandoning the old ways. It is interesting that Thidrandi was killed at the beginning of winter, one of the traditional times for sacrifices to the disir.

C. Communication with the dead.

  1. Initiated by the living.

Then Odin rose, the enchanter old,

And the saddle he laid on Sleipnir’s back;

Thence rode he down to Niflhel deep,

And the hound he met that came from hell.
Bloody he was on his breast before,

At the father of magic he howled from afar;

Forward rode Odin, the earth resounded

Till the house so high of Hel he reached.

The Othin rode to the eastern door,

There, he knew well, was the wise-woman’s grave;

Magic he spoke and mighty charms,

Till spell-bound she rose, and in death she spoke:

“What is the man, to me unknown,

That has made me travel the troublous road?

I was snowed on with snow, and smitten with rain,

And drenched with dew; long was I dead.”

-Baldrs Draumar, Poetic Edda
The dead are a source of knowledge and power. They may be compelled to speak, but they usually resent it and often foretell disaster for the questioner. One of the most dramatic such confrontations is that between the dead berserker Angantyr and his daughter Hervor, who has come for his magic (and cursed) sword, Tyrfing. The full text of Terry’s translation of their encounter is provided as a separate handout.
A gentler, and better-received, way to gain wisdom from the dead is to “sit out” on a burial mound, usually though not necessarily that of an ancestor. In one saga, a shepherd receives the gift of poetic inspiration from the dead skald who lies within the howe where the shepherd often lies (Thattr Thorleifs Jarlaskalds; described in Road to Hel, p. 108).

2. Initiated by the dead:

Sometimes, the dead make contact with the living. They generally want something – to say farewell, to give advice, to demand vengeance, even to complain of uncomfortable grave-conditions. The most striking such episode comes from Njal’s Saga:

One night, Skarp-Hedin and Hogni [Gunnar’s son] were standing outside, to the south of Gunnar’s burial mound. The moonlight was bright but fitful. Suddenly it seemed to them that the mound was open; Gunnar had turned round to face the moon. There seemed to be four lights burning inside the mound, illuminating the whole chamber. They could see that Gunnar was happy; his face was exultant. He chanted a verse so loudly that they could have head it clearly from much farther away:
Hogni’s generous father

Rich in daring exploits,

Who so lavishly gave battle

Distributing wounds gladly,

Calims that in his helmet,

Towering like an oak-tree

In the forest of battle,

He would rather die than yield,

Much rather die than yield.
Then the mound closed again.
Hogni and Skarp-Hedin are moved by this encounter to seek vengeance for Gunnar’s slaying.

D.Draugar (the undead)

1. Tomb-robbing.

The generous offerings that were often made to burial-mounds made tomb-robbing an inevitable tempation. Norse sources contain numerous stories in which the mound’s inhabitant(s) rise up and offer violent resistance to the thieves.
2. Walking draugar.
People who were “hard to deal with” in life might walk after death and cause even more trouble than they did in life. Typically, they would harass the local populace, even murdering some of them, until the district was deserted. A draugr had to be defeated and burned to destroy it, and even burning was not always enough.
One of the most graphic battles between man and draugar comes from Grettir’s Saga; the text is provided as a separate handout. Even after Grettir subdues Glam, the body must be burned and the ashes buried, and Glam’s curse haunts Grettir for the rest of his life.

  1. Conclusion

  1. References

Eyrbyggja Saga. H. Palsson and P. Edwards (transl.), Eyrbyggja Saga. Penguin Books: London. 1989.
Gisli’s Saga. George Johnson and Peter Foote (transl.), Grettir’s Saga. Everyman’s Press: Melbourne. 1987.
Grettir’s Saga. D. Fox and H. Palsson, transl., Grettir’s Saga. University of Toronto Press: Toronto. 1974.
Heimskringla. Snorre Sturlason, Heimskringla, Or the Lives of the Norse Kings, transl. E. Monsen and A.H. Smith. Dover Publications: New York. 1990.
Landnamabok. H. Palsson and P. Edwards (transl.), The Book of Settlements: Landnamabok. University of Manitoba Press. 1972.
Lost Beliefs of Northern Europe. Hilda Ellis Davidson, Lost Beliefs of Northern Europe. Routledge: New York. 1993.
Njal’s Saga. M. Magnusson and H. Palsson (transl.), Njal’s Saga. Penguin Books: Harmondsworth, Middlesex. 1960.
Poetic Edda. The Eddic poems quoted above are all taken from H.A. Bellows (transl.) The Poetic Edda. The Edwin Mellon Press: Lewiston, NY. 1991. “The Waking of Angantyr” (supplemental handout) is from P. Terry (transl.), Poems of the Elder Edda. University of Pennsylvania Press: Philadelphia. 1990.
Prose Edda. Snorri Sturluson, Edda, transl. A. Faulkes. Everyman’s Library (David Campbell Publishers). 1987.
Road to Hel. H.R. Ellis, The Road to Hel: A Study of the Conception of the Dead in Old Norse Literature. Greenwood Press: NY. 1968.

“Thidrandi Whom the Goddesses Slew”. This story appears in G. Jones, Eirek the Red and Other Icelandic Sagas, pp. 158-162. Oxford University Press: Oxford. 1980.


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