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After Death: Certitude or Mystery?


The importance of the remains of the dead, their treatment, their burial, the tending of graves and honouring of one’s dead kinsfolk and heroes. It was an important aspect of the elder Germanic beliefs; with enough parallels in both the beliefs of their fellow Indo-European cultures and the associated archaeological record, to nail it down as a very ancient, very significant, and very enduring thing.

But was Hell simply the grave and grave mound? Was the soul truly and irrevocably bound to it’s remains? Was there in fact no Germanic “afterworld”, beyond life in the grave-mound, as more than one well informed person has proposed? And indeed if the remains of one’s ancestors were lost and/or forgotten so to were their souls to the kindred?

Well, I like this perspective. It’s something that began to dawn on me a couple of decades ago after reading Gronbech’s “Culture of the Teutons”; in which he drew a parallel between the cosmology of the Eddas and the physical realities of a tribe’s surroundings. And there is a lot in elder Germanic lore that certainly points in this direction.

However, while this understanding is a very good foundation — rightly shifting our attention, energy and emphasis away from the otherworld and on to this world, away from the goldstar we will get in some otherworld and on to the legacy we leave for the benefit of our community and descendants that remain in this world after we have departed, ie. world accepting — it nevertheless presents certain inconsistencies with other aspects of both Germanic and Indo-European lore; which, from subtle indications of language and elder figures of speech to ship-burials are suggestive of both a journey, and hence a destination, following death … undertaken from within the gravemound it would “certainly seem”.

For all of that, I still find that the Eddas, paint too detailed and too certain of a picture about such things. Who knows what lies ahead in that great journey taken after death? The dead … of which none of us are at this moment. As with the nature of the Tivar, I tend to dislike sharp and certain definitions of things a person doesn’t really know anything more-or-less about than anyone else. Certainly we have a sense of “life after death” … a sense that is of course the strongest in the presence of the bones of our ancestors, but if the ancient Greeks are any testament, a mound is a mound is a mound, each as the other a gate to Hades apparently, whether or not their ancestors or heroes were actually buried in “that” particular mound or worshiped at many different mounds in different localities. But no, certitude was never a promise or pretense of elder Germanicism, which was always happy to own it’s sense of things while happily letting those things be whatever they actually are apart from their sense of them. As can be gleaned in the following passage from Bede’s History of the English Nation, the elder culture knew how to honour to *mystery*,

“The present life man, O king, seems to me, in comparison with that time which is unknown to us, like to the swift flight of a sparrow through the hall wherein you sit at supper in winter amid your officers and ministers, with a good fire in the midst whilst the storms of rain and snow prevail abroad; the sparrow, I say, flying in at one door and immediately out another, whilst he is within is safe from the wintry weather. But after a short space of fair weather he immediately vanishes out of your sight into the dark winter from which he has emerged. So this life of man appears for a short while. But of what went before or what is to follow we are ignorant. If, therefore, this new doctrine contains something more certain, it seems justly to deserve to be followed.”

And in the poem Beowulf as it pertains to the death, funeral and otherworldly fate of Scyld Sceafing,

“Men do not know
truth be told, neither counselors
nor heroes under heaven, who unshipped that cargo.”

And in Book I of the Gesta Danorum,

“she drew him with her underground, and vanished… <snip> … purposed that he should pay a visit in the flesh to the regions whither he must go when he died. So they first pierced through a certain dark misty cloud, and then advancing along a path that was worn away with long thoroughfaring… <snip> … Going further, they came on a swift and tumbling river of leaden waters, whirling down on its rapid current divers sorts of missiles, and likewise made passable by a bridge… <snip> … Then a wall hard to approach and to climb blocked their further advance. The woman tried to leap it, but in vain, being unable to do so even with her slender wrinkled body; then she wrung off the head of a cock which she chanced to be taking down with her, and flung it beyond the barrier of the walls; and forthwith the bird came to life again, and testified by a loud crow to recovery of its breathing.

Did our ancestors believe in life after death? Certainly. But certitude about such things as no man can be certain about is not a selling point of the elder beliefs. As ever, truth is more about questions and less about answers. Beware the man who is certain about things no man could possibly be … for within him grow the seeds of evil.

Our Story

Indigenous Germanic belief was never so sharply compartmentalized a thing as we think of today when we think of religion. Certainly, our ancestors had their notions of what might properly be thought of as religious … those things “set apart” in dedication to the gods and their worship, and which were mostly the preoccupation of the tribal priests and/or head of household … but those beliefs impacted all other aspects of their culture. Language, poetry, mead, farming practices, battle formations, social institutions, tribal land masses, etc. were all ascribed sacral origins by our ancestors. There was no sacred-profane dichotomy, but rather a “trichotomy” of the sacred (wih), the blessed community (holy), and everything else outside of that (unholy, ie. not whole, not integral to the community).

While, in the past, Christianity came to replace the theological aspects of our indigenous beliefs, it did not mark the end of our beliefs from a properly heathen point of view. Ideology does not define our folk in the same way as it does universalists. The conversion was not the end of our story. Our languages continued, our folk cultures continued, our cultural perceptions and biases continued … not only to BE impressed, but to IMPRESS itself upon Christianity … and our blood continued.

Our story has continued, as ever, to grow and evolve in accordance with our historical experience … in accordance with our native notion of law, of precedent. Our Christianized ancestors of yore, for better and for worse (but mostly for worse), laid down a new precedent … and we have laid down other precedents since … the Eddic “laying of layers” … that have enabled us “heathens” to arise again and lay down a new precedent of our own, which is itself an old one … that recognizes our sacral origins as a people and the value of who we are. But it is all our story as the offspring of NW Europe. There is no Christian history or Heathen history. There is only European history, Germanic history. Our story.

The Germanic Hell

Much as with the word Heaven, there is really no need qualify the word Hell with “Germanic” as Hell is a Germanic word … no matter how many L’s you throw in it. As with Heaven, it would be more technically correct to speak of the “Christian Hell”; which itself is properly known as Sheol or Gehenna. Biblically speaking, Sheol is simply the grave, where the dead await the Resurrection and Final Judgement of the Biblical God, while Gehenna (named after an old Jewish garbage dump) is the more familiar “lake of fire” that those who don’t make the cut will be incinerated in and which we commonly association with the “eternal torment of Hell”. There really is no “otherwordly” afterlife within Biblical Christianity, only the “promise” of the Resurrection and Judgement Day, and then the recreation of an earthly Eden which shall follow in its wake.

7. If any one, in accordance with pagan rites, shall have caused the body of a dead man to be burned and shall have reduced his bones to ashes, let him be punished capitally.” (Charlemagne, Capitulary for Saxony)

Hence the Christian contempt for the practice of cremation; which was seen to deprive the Biblical God of his/those in Sheol of their rightful judgement.

As we have it, the word Hell stems from the Old English word Hell (Hel, Helle) and has cognates in all of the Germanic languages from Gothic to Old Norse, all of which stem from a common Proto-Germanic root *haljo, which itself stems from the Proto-Indo-European root *kel(2), meaning “to cover, conceal”. On its most concrete level it refers, like Sheol, to the grave, and on a more abstract to the “underworld of the dead” as portrayed quite explicitly (ie. as Hell) in the Norse-Icelandic Eddas and implicitly in the sagas of the same folk (eg. Helgafell) . To those of our ancestors who gave us the word Hell it was simply “the place where the dead go”, both literally and figuratively, ie. under the earth, and more akin to the Greek concept of Hades then any of our received Christo-Germanic notions.

Of course, when an outsider asks about the “Germanic Hell” they’re not really asking about the Germanic Hell at all. What they’re really asking about is the, ahem, “Christian Hell” and if there is a place like it in native Germanic belief? And the answer of course — given the degree that native Germanic culturo-religious sensibilities have shaped popular Christianity in the West — is yes. Naturally. And our most glaring evidence of this comes from the Eddas themselves, which speak of Niflhel and the grim hall that sits upon Nastrond (the Shore of Corpses),

38. A hall I saw, | far from the sun,
On Nastrond it stands, | and the doors face north,
Venom drops | through the smoke-vent down,
For around the walls | do serpents wind.

39. I saw there wading | through rivers wild
Treacherous men | and murderers too,
And workers of ill | with the wives of men;
There Nithhogg sucked | the blood of the slain,
And the wolf tore men; | would you know yet more? (trans. Henry A. Bellows)

While some like to pass bits like this off as “Christian influence”, similar beliefs can be found throughout the Indo-European world such as in Naraka of Hindu belief and Tartarus of Greek belief; in both cases standing “far from the sun” and places were the wicked are punished. Furthermore, it is a curious fact that in both Old English and Old High German Catholic poetry we find Gehenna being glossed as Wyrmsele (Hall of Serpents) and Wyrmgarten (Yard of Serpents), respectively. As there is nothing in Biblical Christianity that might fuel such a conception of an otherworldly realm of punishment, the “hall of serpents” motif can only reflect one that is inherently Germanic in nature.

Looking at early Germanic culture itself we see an earthly paradigm in Germanic legal customs and the practices of the Thing; where most crimes could be paid for, literally, via fine, but under which some crimes were, naturally, deemed so wicked that they were handled by “the priest-king”. According to Tacitus,

..they may not execute, they may not imprison, they may not even flog a criminal; those are the obligations of the priests alone, who do so not as a form of military punishment nor at the general’s bidding, but in accordance with the will of the god that accompanies them to the field of battle.

The same can be seen in the judgement of the missionary Willibrord by the Frisi-King, Radbod, for said missionaries acts of sacrilege on Fositesland. As per Tacitus’ statement regarding capital offense, the judgement was not rendered based on the will of the king, but rather on the casting of lots, ie. the will of the gods. So, as to the notion of “divine judgement” in and of itself in Germanic belief, it is evident enough within the context and actual practices of the Thing. As for punishment, while I personally dislike the notion of active and prolonged punishment — in-keeping with the general legal customs of the Thing, ie. fines — what follows must be acknowledged as what follows. The North Germanic Loki for example didn’t just happen to slip and fall into his bindings in the underworld. He was put there. By the gods. For all that one might argue that, in terms of the concrete practices of actual mortals, we are obliged to ask permission of the gods, legally speaking, in executing our fellow tribes men. But here we carry out the actual punishment, be it execution, imprisonment or flogging.

As for an abode of punishment, I once again refer to Tacitus’ comments on the fate of capital offenders,

Penalties are distinguished according to the offence. Traitors and deserters are hanged on trees; the coward, the unwarlike, the man stained with abominable vices, is plunged into the mire of the morass with a hurdle put over him. This distinction in punishment means that crime, they think, ought, in being punished, to be exposed, while infamy ought to be buried out of sight.

The distinction is pertinent and immediately calls to mind the distinction the ancestors drew between a man-killing and a murder; the latter of which was a far more serious offense and defined as a secret killing, ie. that went unclaimed by the offender. It is also reminiscent of  Jacob Grimm’s assertion in his Teutonic Mythology  that, “it is said of fortunate men, that God saw them, and of unfortunate, that God forgot them“, and the duality of glory/obscurity as expressed in Germanic heroic poetry. And of course this aligns with what the Eddas tell of the realm of the shameful dead as standing “far from the sight of the sun” and existing within the aforementioned Niflhel; itself meaning dark, misty, obscure (nifl-) Hell.

So, we might well say that the bog — or even more poignantly the snake pit, ie. Ragnar Lodbrok — is the concrete reality that the mythical abstraction of “Wyrmsele” is based upon. And that the fate of the shameful capital offender in this world was a reflection of their fate in the after death; even as the “name undying” was a reflection of one’s fate in the after death.

All of this brings me around to my personal beliefs regarding the shameful dead; which, as noted above, do not hinge on any kind of active punishment at all and is more inline with the practices of shunning and moreso, full outlawry. It has often been noted that, among the Indo-European peoples in general, and the Germanic peoples in specific, wretchedness, to be left alone and without a tribe or people, was commonly  regarded as being the worst fate that could befall a man. The pains of wretchedness are laid bare in such painfully eloquent Old English poems as the Wanderer. To be forbidden entrance to the halls of the gods, denied a place even in the halls of one’s own ancestors, and to be left alone at the mercy of the “otherworldly wilds”, to wander wretched and assailed, without respite, until the last vestiges of your humanity is shed and the stuff of one’s soul biodegrades back into the nothingness of Ginnungagap that it, ultimately, issued from … such to my thinking is the fate of shameful dead. No one punishes them per say. They simply lose faith in them and so turn their backs on them. And what follows follows.

I’ll tie this up with a pertinent poem I wrote back in the 90’s,

Oft flies the eagle / beyond the udal of men
seeking those sights / unseen by sons of Ing.
Tired he takes rest / atop a steadfast tree,
Then sails on, skyward, / continues his search.

Hwaet! There is a frozen plain / no joy to be found.
The wind is lonesome, / it wails in wrath,
Stirring up wights, / armed well, and wicked
Who fling into flesh / their fiery spears.

Above, soot-grey clouds / grim the skies greatness
And yonder loom dark peaks / dreadful to behold.
No tirfast sun, here, / shall ever be seen.
No home nor hearth / shall warm your heart.

Here wander the souls / worthless and withering,
Forgotten by men / forgotten by gods.
The wulf in this wasteland / nothing weens
Save evil will / save stagnant wyrd.