The Norse mythology shows that our ancestors had a deeply-rooted belief in the immortality of the soul. They believed in a state of retribution beyond the grave. The dissolution of the body was typified by Balder's death, and like the latter it was a result of Loke's malignity, just as the devil brought death upon Adam and Eve, and through them upon all mankind.
But while we find the belief in the imperishableness of the soul firmly established, the ideas regarding the state of existence after death were somewhat unsettled. We are soon to present the Eddaic doctrines of future life, but in connection with Hel it seems proper to give some further explanation of the ideas that our forefathers entertained of death. Hel's gate is open, or ajar, said the old Goths, when the shades of death went out through the darkness of night and terrified all; but it is also open to receive the child with rosy cheeks as well as the man with hoary locks and trembling gait.
The future state was regarded as a continuation of our earthly existence. This is proved by the custom so prevalent among the Norsemen of supplying the dead with the best part of their property and the first necessities of life. A coin was put under the dead man's tongue, that he might be able to defray his first expenses with it on his way to his final abode. Of course the dead went either to Odin or to Hel, but the relation between Valhal and Helheim presented difficulties which the Norsemen strove in various ways to solve. It was said that they who are slain in battle go to Odin in Valhal, while those who die of sickness or old age go to Hel in Helheim. But according to this it would be the kind of death alone which decided the soul's future state; only those who fell by weapons would ascend to the glad abodes of heaven, while all who die of sickness would have to wander away to the dark world of the abyss, and there were people in whose eyes nothing except warlike deeds was praiseworthy. But the Odinic mythology, taken as a whole, presents a different view, although it must be admitted, as has before repeatedly been stated, that bravery was a cardinal virtue among our Norse ancestors.
We remember, from a previous chapter in this book, that the spirit or soul of man was a gift of Odin, while the body, blood and external beauty were a gift of Loder, who afterwards separated from the trinity of Odin, Hœner and Loder and became the mischievous Loke. Thus the soul belonged to the spirit-world, or Heaven, and the body to the material world, to the Deep. The two, soul and body, were joined together in this earthly life, but at its close they were separated, and each returned to it original source. The soul, with its more refined bodily form in which it was thought to be enveloped, went to the home of the gods, while the body, with the grosser material life, which was conceived to be inseparable from it, went to the abodes of Hel to become the prey of Loke's daughter. Thus man's being was divided between Odin and Hel. Odin, whose chief characteristic was god of war, seems to have claimed his share chiefly from those who fell in battle; and this probably may suggest to us some reason why Balder went to Hel. Balder is not a fighting god, he only shines, conferring numberless blessings on mankind, and death finally steals upon him. Odin seems not to have much need of his like. Thus death by arms came to be considered a happy lot, by the zealous followers of the asa-faith, for it was a proof of Odin's favor smiling upon them. He who fell by arms was called by Odin to himself, before Hel laid claim to her share of his being; he was Odin's chosen son, who with longing was awaited in Valhal, that he, in the ranks of the einherjes, might assist and sustain the gods in their last battle, in Ragnarok. In accordance with this theory we find in the ancient song of praise to the fallen king Erik Blood-ax, that Sigmund asks Odin this question:
Why snatch him then, father
From fortune and glory?
Why not leave him rather
To fill up his story
On victory's road?
Because no man knows
When gray wolf so gory
His grisly maw shows
In Asgard's abode;
Therefore Odin calls
And Erik fain falls
To follow his liege lord
And fight for his god.
By this Odin means to say, we do not know when the Fenris-wolf may come, and therefore we may need Erik's assistance. In the same sense the valkyrie is made by Eyvind Skaldespiller, in Hákonarmál, to say:
Now are strengthened the host of the gods,
Since they have Haakon
And his valiant army
Home to themselves brought.
But because the dead who were slain by arms were thought to be called to Valhal, to unite themselves with the hosts of the einherjes, it was not supposed that Hel did not get her share in their being; nor was it supposed, on the other hand, that the soul of every one who died a natural death was shut out from heaven and forced to follow the body down into the abodes of Hel. That it was virtue, on the whole, and not bravery alone, which was to be rewarded in another life, and that it was wickedness and vice that were to be punished, is distinctly shown in the first poem of the Elder Edda, where it says of Gimle:
The virtuous there
Shall always dwell
while perjurers, murderers and adulterers shall wade through thick venom-streams in Naastrand. But it must be remembered that Gimle and Naastrand had reference to the state of things after Ragnarok, the Twilight of the gods; while Valhal and Hel have reference to the state of things between death and Ragnarok,—a time of existence corresponding somewhat to what is called purgatory by the Catholic church. It may however be fairly assumed that the ideas which our ancestors had of reward and punishment concerning the preceding middle state (purgatory) of the dead, were similar to those which they had concerning the state after Ragnarok.
It was certainly believed that the soul of the virtuous, even though death by arms had not released it from the body and raised it up to the rank of the real einherjes, still found an abode in heaven, either in Valhal or in Vingolf or in Folkvang. The skald, Thjodolf of Hvin, makes King Vanlande go to Odin, although Hel tortured him; and Egil Skallagrimson, lamenting the death of his drowned son, knows that the son he has come to the home of the gods (Gudheimr), while of himself he says that he fearlessly awaits the coming of Hel.
Of Nanna we read that she went with her husband, Balder, to Hel; but the souls of noble women were believed to go to heaven after death. There they found an abode with Freyja, and the spirits of maidens with Gefjun. When it is said that Freyja shares the slain with Odin, it may be supposed to mean that the slain, who in life had loved wives, were united to them again with Freyja.
On the other hand, it was as certainly believed that blasphemy and baseness might shut out even the bravest from Valhal. In the Saga of Burnt Njal, Hakon Jarl says of the bold but wicked Hrap, who had seduced his benefactor's daughter and burned a temple: The man who did this shall be banished from Valhal and never come thither.
The reader may think that the statements here presented show some inconsistency in the theory and plan of salvation according to the doctrines of the Norse mythology. We admit that there seems to be some inconsistency, but let us ask, is not this charge also frequently made against the Scriptures? Is not the church, on this very question of the plan of salvation, divided into two great parties, the one insisting on faith and the other on works? The one party quoting and requoting Paul, in his epistle to the Romans (iii,28), where he says, that man is justified by faith without the deeds of the law; and the other appealing to James' epistle (ii,24), where he says, that by works a man is justified, and not by faith only. And as the most eminent divines have found harmony in the principles of the Mosaic-Christian religion as laid down in the Scriptures, so we venture to assert that a profound study of the Odinic mythology will enable the student to elicit a sublime harmony in its doctrines and principles.
The strict construction of the asa-doctrine appears to be this, that although man in the intermediate state, between death and Ragnarok, was divided between Odin and Hel, yet each one's share of his being, after death, was greater or less according to the life he had lived. The spirit of the virtuous and the brave had the power to bear up to heaven with it after death the better part of its corporeal being, and Hel obtained only the dust. But he whose spirit, by wickedness and base, sensual lust was drawn away from heaven, became in all his being the prey of Hel. His soul was not strong enough to mount freely up to the celestial abodes of the gods, but was drawn down into the abyss by the dust with which it had ever been clogged. Perhaps the representation of Hel as being half white and half pale-blue had its origin in this thought, that to the good, death appeared as a bright (white) goddess of deliverance, but to the wicked, as a dark and punishing deity.
When the drowned came to the halls of Ran, the sea-goddess took the part of Hel; that is, Ran claimed the body as her part, while the spirit ascended to heaven.
Bondsmen came to Thor after death. This seems to express the idea, that their spirits had not the power to mount up with free-born heroes to the higher celestial abodes, but were obliged to linger midway, as it were, among the low floating clouds under the stern dominion of Thor;—a thought painful to the feeling of humanity, but nevertheless not inconsistent with the views of our ancestors in ancient times. But when the bondsmen, as was the custom in the most ancient Gothic times, followed their master on the funeral pile, the motive must have been that they would continue to serve him in the future life, or their throwing themselves on their master's funeral pile could have no meaning whatever.
The old Norsemen had many beautiful ideas in connection with death. Thus in the lay of Atle it is said of him who dies that he goes to the other light. That the dead in the mounds were in a state of consciousness is illustrated by the following passages from Fridthiof's Saga:
Now, children, lay us in two lofty graves
Down by the sea-shore, near the deep-blue waves:
Their sounds shall to our souls be music sweet,
Singing our dirge as on the strand they beat.
When round the hills the pale moonlight is thrown
And midnight dews fall on the Bauta-stone,
We'll sit, O Thorsten, in our rounded graves
And speak together o'er the gentle waves.
"Norse Mythology," by Rasmus B. Anderson, pages 390-396.