Ancient History & Civilisation

CHAPTER 19

Morality, Life and Death

Morality to the Norse was, in many ways, akin to those of other polytheistic religions, specifically that of the Greeks and the Romans. Rather than the ascetic nature of the monotheistic religion(s), the gods of the Norse espoused things found in nature. They, like the people who revered them, were often flawed. They could be quick to anger, or to cheat or to deceive or kill. But even those more insidious gods, such as Loki, had their shining moments.

The Norse viewed everything in nature as being attributed to one god or another; or at least some other being or type of being, such as the dwarves or the elves, etc. When a storm rolled in, it was viewed as being Thor’s hammer crashing down. Therefore, while the Norse strived to be worthy of Valhalla or the fields of Freyja, they recognized that they, like the gods they revered, were imperfect.

One of the chief ways that the Norse believed they could become worthy of life in Odin’s Valhalla or Freyja’s Fólkvangr, was through courage in the face of an enemy, or kindness in the presence of a friend.

While much of the cycles of life and death have already been discussed, there is plenty more to know.

Now, we’ve established that Hel was the destination for most mortals, those who had brought dishonor upon themselves in one way or another; often through cowardice, treason or otherwise failing or harming their communities and each other.

The honored dead, however, had a much different future ahead of them. The honored dead who fell in battle were led by the Valkyries to Valhalla, or to Fólkvangr, where they would prepare, as their comrades under Odin’s watch, for Ragnarök.

It’s been stated that the honored dead would do battle in their preparation, and it’s important to note that these battles weren’t simple training exercises. Those doing battle were the Berserkers, warriors whose skill and fury in battle was unlike anything else on any of the worlds. Those who were bested in Valhalla were killed, just as if they were fighting a true war with one another. After the daily battle, those who had fallen would rise again, and all would come together to drink of mead and feast in each other’s company.

Descriptions of Fólkvangr aren’t as numerous or as detailed as those of Valhalla, but it’s been postulated that the two destinations were of roughly the same nature. Freyja’s half of the honored dead would also prepare for Ragnarök as an army; although, while Valhalla was generally the destination of men who had died on the battlefield, Fólkvangr also housed those of honor who were not warriors. Women, men and children could be found in Fólkvangr, but again, not much else is known about Freyja’s army.

In their everyday life, the Norse held tightly to family bonds and the bonds with those of their communities with personal responsibility being at the forefront of their minds. This isn’t to say that the Norse were a particularly peaceful people.

Vikings, as we know, were generally plunderers, at times conquering lands as far south as France and Spain. Those who stayed in their newly conquered lands, though, generally assimilated rather quickly into the general populous of their new surroundings.

Conquering or sacking the lands of foreigners was considered to be not only a way to prove one’s honor and skill in battle, but as a way to strengthen and assert the Norse way of life. Though the Norse didn’t believe in killing for the sake of killing, they did believe that if they killed or died in furtherance of strengthening their people, they would be greatly rewarded in the afterlife.

One of the chief reasons for this, and behind much of Norse morality, was how one’s actions may influence Ragnarök. It could be said that while the honorable dead would strengthen the gods, therefore, perhaps, giving mankind and its deities a crucial edge in Ragnarök, cowards and criminals would do just as much damage as their cohorts did good.

Hel, despite its modern usage, was to the Norse, not a place of eternal damnation and punishment, but simply as a place where there really wasn’t much going on. Furthermore, those who came to dwell in Hel would likely play a small roll (if any role at all) in the events of Ragnarök.

Social ties were viewed as crucial, as those who sought to individuate themselves from their tribes or communities would also end up on their own in the afterlife; specifically, a whole lot of time with Hel.

The concepts of Niflheim and Muspelheim were likely simple allegories to locations, though nonspecific, in nature. To the north of the Norse lands was coldness and barrenness attributed to Niflheim. To the south was the land of heat and fire, attributed to Muspelheim. Put simply, due to the Norse lands’ location in the upper part of the northern hemisphere, (Norway, Finland, Denmark, Sweden, Iceland and Greenland,) the Vikings recognized that the more north they went, the colder the land was; the further south they went, the warmer.

The Norse, though devotees of their gods, believed just as strongly in the importance of family and societal ties; what every Viking desired from battle was either a valiant death, or a great victory in which their fellows would all reap the benefit.

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