When a white nationalist terrorist killed dozens in an attack in New Zealand, he invoked Valhalla. We who walk paths that include Norse practice have been struggling against the use of our symbols as tools to support white supremacy and hate. Every time something like this happens, those of us who support inclusive pagan practice once again have to declare ourselves and as the Havamal says, “When you see misdeeds, speak out against them, and give your enemies no frith.” We are at this sad place again. Make no mistake I stand for inclusivity and against hate.
As one devoted to the goddess Freya in this time where warrior goddesses are rising, I’ve been thinking a lot about her war aspect. It’s one that often gets neglected, but right now, in a time where so many think war is the answer, it’s worth a closer look.
Freya gets the first pick of the battle dead, and those she selects come to Folkvangr, which translates as “the people’s field.” They are feasted in the hall called Sessrumnir, which roughly translates and “room with many seats.” There are some who believe Sessrumnir is a ship, but either way it’s the same. In contrast to Valhalla, where the fallen engage in endless brawling, feasting, and boozing, those that come to Folkvangr and Sessrumnir lead presumably a much more peaceful existence, if the place names are any indication. We know comparatively little about Folkvangr as opposed to Valhalla. But that’s par for the course — the history of women and the lore of goddesses was often systematically eliminated over the last couple thousand years.
The associations with Valhalla are always about the glory of battle, the desire in death to be recognized as heroes, and the eternal battling as a celebration of the chaos of fighting and drinking at the bar afterwards. It’s interesting that Odin does not choose first, but after Freya. The cream of the crop (would she choose any but the best?) therefore are assumed to go a peaceful place, a place that belongs to “the people” and has many seats. Only after Freya chooses the warriors that belong there does Odin get to choose the warriors who will go to Valhalla, which sounds suspiciously like an eternal frat party where they play a perpetual and exceedingly bloody game of King of the Hill, and in a turn of events that sounds suspiciously like the plot of Groundhog Day, they wake every morning to do the whole damn thing over (and over) again. I admit this is a hyperbolic view. Let me be clear that Valhalla is a sacred realm with sacred purpose. But it is not the only hall in which the dead reside.
It is unsurprising that in a Patriarchal world, Valhalla should receive so much more attention and notoriety than Folkvangr. Even today, in a world where life is considerably less nasty, brutish, and short than it was in first century Scandinavia, violence is glorified and those who can legitimately tap into the identity of “warrior” are revered. But while plenty of people are addicted to playing first-person shooter games for hours and hours — would all of them love it so much if they couldn’t log off, if they had to actually live the game? Some would. Most probably wouldn’t. Talk to anyone who’s actually been in a war and ask him or her where they’d really want to go when they die — the peaceful room of Sessrumnir, or the rowdy, bloodthirsty hall of Valhalla. You might be surprised at how they answer. The hyper-testosterone fueled antics of Valhalla only hold appeal to a distinct segment of people, who probably should be allowed to carry on with their noise and hijinks without disturbing others. It’s all in all a good thing that those that would be made happy by endless bloodshed and fighting might find a place beyond the veil where that is exactly what they get to do. But let’s not kid ourselves that it’s something we all should aspire to.
The heroes that find their way to Folkvangr are presumed to be different, to be heroes of the people. I have seen these warriors before. They are the ones who lied about their age because they wanted to enlist because they couldn’t bear to not fight for their country and for freedom. They carried pictures of loved ones close to their hearts, and when asked, will tell you that these beloveds are who they fight for. Them and the person in the foxhole next to them. They do not fight for glory, but they do have tremendous honor. They do heroic deeds not because they want to be covered in praise, but because there was a job needed doing and no one else was available to do it. In the modern American military, these are the kinds of people who win the Medal of Honor. Most folks who have served will tell you that the kind of bravery and battle lust we think of when we think of Valhalla is not the kind of thing you want in the foxhole beside you. Because that is the sort of thing that gets people killed.
It’s also interesting to note why Odin claims his warriors for Valhalla — these are the troops he expects to bring with him to fight his final battle at Ragnarok, which he is fated to lose. Ultimately, those honored by being selected for Valhalla are being doomed to destruction. It’s worth thinking twice about. Is Valhalla really the pinnacle of afterlife existence that popular culture sells it as? Is being bloodthirsty and quick to rush into battle heroism or foolishness? Those who invoke Valhalla should be careful what they wish for. The All-Father is well-known for giving gifts that often demand more from you than you anticipated.
I don’t have all the answers here. Mostly what I have are pointed questions. What I do know is that those of us who are tired of seeing Norse symbols and spirituality co-opted by those who hate might want to take a closer look at those concepts, and discuss openly exactly how they have been misused, and why the haters amongst us have it all wrong. Valhalla is not the only home for heroes in the afterlife, and may not be worthy of the hype it’s received at the hands of a Patriarchal society that lionizes war and thrives on asking men and women to die for causes that may or may not be in the people’s best interest. It might be time to ask ourselves more and better questions about what it means to die a good death.