**On a completely unrelated note, my book launch for How Beauty Met the Beast will be at Bar Congress on November 20th from 5:30-7pm. There will be specialty cocktails inspired by the lead characters and much fun to be had. Come join us! (The book itself releases on Novemeber 19th. I can’t believe it’s really here!!) Now back to your regularly scheduled Pagan social issues and socializing.**
Half a league, half a league,
Half a league onward,
All in the valley of Death
Rode the six hundred.
~ “The Charge of the Light Brigade,” Lord Alfred Tennyson
The myth of the einherjar made me realize Heathenry is the religion for me, so it has a special place in my heart. Growing up I’d always heard that the Vikings believed the only way to get into “heaven” was to die in battle, leaving the non-warriors of us eternally screwed. Like so many stories translated into another cultural paradigm this isn’t completely inaccurate, but is also a misunderstanding. First off, like a lot of Pagan faiths, Heathenry doesn’t espouse a sorting of the wicked from the righteous into a heaven and hell. For the most part we say that we all “join our ancestors” when we die, sending everyone to the same place. The mythological name of that gathering place is, in fact “Helheim”–Hel’s home–named for Loki’s daughter who is the guardian of the dead. But it’s not a land of eternal punishment and there’s no fire or brimstone. It’s just a place.
The ninth is Folkvang, where Freyja decrees
Who shall have seats in the hall;
The half of the dead each day does she choose,
And half does Othin have.
~ from Grímnismál, Henry Adams Bellows translation
But there are a few exceptions to the myth of everyone sharing the same afterlife. The most well-known examples are the einherjar. They are the origin of the belief Viking “heaven” is only for fallen soldiers. According to the Lore, after a battle valkyries [“choosers of the slain”] carry half the fallen warriors off to Fólkvangr [“field of the people/army”] to live with Freyja and the other half to Odin’s Valhalla [“Hall of the Slain”]. Those that go to Valhalla are called the einherjar, and they spend their days in glorious combat with each other and their nights drinking mead, eating pork dinner and partying with valkyries.
It is a Viking version of Heaven, I suppose. But the fighting and feasting of the einherjar are not a reward for good behavior. They have a deeper and darker purpose. When Ragnarök, the Norse version of Armageddon, begins the einherjar are the soldiers who will take to the battlefield with Odin in a last ditch effort to stop the end of the world. Here, to me, is where the story gets really interesting. Odin knows that Ragnarök is coming because long ago he sacrificed his eye for a chance to learn the future. When he learned of the apocalypse, he also learned he will be killed and devoured by Fenris-wolf during the battle. Most of the other Æsir are fated to die as well. Humanity, a creation of Odin and his brothers, will be wiped out, and Midgard, the world as we know it which Odin and his brothers crafted from the body of a slain giant, will be destroyed in fire by the sons of Muspell (fire giants).
So knowing the future, what does Odin do? Norse myth doesn’t have that Greek style tragedy wherein wights (wights being any creature, person, elf, or god) learn about the future and inadvertently cause it to happen by trying to avoid it, a la Oedipus. In Norse mythology, we learn the future to try to prepare for it as best we can, not to avoid it. We consider knowledge to be a very good thing. So, knowing the future, Odin selects two humans to hide in a safe location so the human race can repopulate, and he starts collecting the bravest, most clever soldiers to fight with him at the final battle. Knowing they are fated to lose, on the day of Ragnarök these men and gods will take the field together anyway.
This, to me, is what defines a good person–the willingness to fight for what’s right, even when you know it’s a losing battle. Odin does what he can to hedge his bets and trick fate. But in the end, when all his attempts to slow The End have run out, he and his soldiers will go give it one last, likely futile effort. Whether or not they believe they can reverse fate isn’t the point. The point is they are willing to fight for what they believe in regardless of the outcome.
Many Heathens raise a glass to the einherjar on Veteran’s Day and Memorial Day in honor of our soldiers past and present who fight for us, not knowing what tomorrow will bring. This, to me is a good and right thing. I also think of figures like Liu Xiaobo, the 2010 Nobel Peace Prize winner who’s currently in Chinese prison for human rights activism. Though an advocate of peaceful protest, Liu is one of those rare people who keeps moving forward, despite the snapping jaws of government wolves.
Come, my friends,
‘Tis not too late to seek a newer world.
Tho’ much is taken, much abides; and though
We are not now that strength which in old days
Moved earth and heaven; that which we are, we are;
One equal temper of heroic hearts,
Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.
~ “Ulysses,” Tennyson
Einherjar means “lone fighters.” An einherji (singular of einherjar) is a person that keeps moving forward when everyone else has given up in fear or apathy. And that is a hero.
Who are your einherjar-like heroes?
+ Featured Image: Åsgårdsreien by Peter Nicolai Arbo