It is often said by those not “in the know” — and indeed even among some who should know better — that Valhalla is the “Germanic Heaven”. And this is usually accompanied by a belief that all one has to do is die in a fight, in “battle”, to get there.
In fact, the term Heaven is a word firmly rooted in the Germanic languages, stemming from the Anglo-Saxon heofen and cognate to the Old Norse himin, with various other cognates in the various Germanic languages all stemming from a proto-Germanic root, ie. it’s NOT a borrowing from Latin or Greek or Aramaic or Hebrew, or any other language. Some scholars have said that the word “merely” indicated the sky, but indeed in the Anglo-Saxon poetry we find such deific titles as “Heaven’s Warder”, while in the later Norse-Icelandic Eddas we find, not only Himinbjorg (Heavens Mountain) as the name of the hall of the deity Heimdall, but the term is also used by Snorri Sturluson (writer of the Prose Edda) to describe levels of what is more commonly known as Esegeard (Asgard, yard of the Ese= Gods) or Godheim (Home of the Gods), ie. the deific realms.
So, there really is no need to qualify the term Heaven with the term Germanic, as though they are things foreign to one another. The Germanic folk coined the term. It would thus be more appropriate, technically speaking, to speak of “Christian Heaven”, as the Germanic is implicit in the word.
In the Eddas, Esegeard (ON. AsgardhR) is the “kingdom” in which Valhalla stands. But there is also a Valaskjalf, which carries essentially the same meaning as Valhalla, and also the hall of the goddess Freo (ON. Freyja), who is said to share half of the battle-slain with Woden (ON. Odhinn). Moreover, there are also the many other halls of the many other Tivar (deities), to be found in Esegeard. And in fact, in one of the Eddaic poems, Woden (in disguise as Harbard) mocks Thunor (ON. ThorR) from across a great river, stating that he receives thralls in his hall, whereas Woden receives warrior-princes. A dubious comment to be sure, but here we are told outright by the Lord of Valhalla Himself that other deities receive the so-called “straw-dead”, ie. not slain in battle/ritual sacrifice, into their halls. And indeed, we also know from the Eddas that one of Frige’s (ON. Frigg) handmaidens receives the souls of young children that have died.
So, it is a moot point that Heaven, by preChristian Germanic belief, wasn’t merely reserved for warriors that had died in battle. It wasn’t SO exclusive on the one hand, or so indiscriminate on the other.
In fact, as we read elsewhere in the Eddas, troops of dead warriors can also be found engaged in “eternal struggle” on the fields of Hell, among the “straw-dead”.
So, not all warriors that died in battle go to Heaven. And chances are that not all thralls go to Heaven either. Children are of course children and are not governed by the same rules as adults.
So what was the diff between this or that warrior, or this or that thrall?
Here we go back to the term Heaven and it’s direct association with the sky, and particularly with the radiance of the heavens; namely, the stars. Much like our distant Indo-European brethren, the Greeks, our ancestors had an “astrological mythology” — or so the surviving lore and general I-E cultural reflex hints — in which the various stars and heavenly bodies had deep associations with figures from our myths and history, eg. Fjolnir’s Pledge, Andvarii’s Toe, Iring’s Way. Going to Heaven quite literally means to ascend into “the sky” to become a “star” alongside the deities and heroes of one’s people; one becomes a legend. Hence the term Tivar, which stems from the same root that gave us the god-name Tiw/Tyr and the generic name for deity in Old Norse, and which means “gods, heroes”. The same root also gave us the word for glory/splendour in Old High German (ziori), and extends back to an Indo-European root that references the heavens and their radiance adn which is bound up with the “halo” motif as found in Indo-European cultures (and adopted belief systems such as Christianity, ie. saints). The basic thought pattern and language is still with us today, frivolously though it may be, in our reference to various well known personalities as “stars”.
So, moving along, it is the BEST warriors that Woden receives in Valhalla. Those that have become stars within the context of war. Given Thunor’s love of hard-work and feats of strength and constitution, it is the BEST thralls that Thunor receives in his hall on the “Field of Strength”. And so on with the other Tivar, each according to their own interests and inclinations. This is what the Heavens are ALL about, the home of the best, and those who best embodied our ideals about various things, be they warriors-kings or thralls … even livestock or tools, eg. swords.
Only the best.
Of course, contrary to popular pretensions, not everyone gets to be a star, who, like the Rune Poem states, will continue to shine on through even the darkest and most obscure of “nights” to inspire us to be the best we can be.
It should be borne in mind of course that even as “life on the farm” might seem like a fate worse than death to some high-energy warrior-aristocrat — which is muchly the perspective we’re getting in the surviving lore — the wise know that rulers and their servants are among the least free of all the folk. Work, work, work, and always for the interests of others, never one’s own interests. Heaven is a busy place (or so I would assume), and chances are that while most of us would love to visit there, few would like to spend eternity there. And indeed, while painted as dreary here and there in the lore, the abode/s of the “straw-dead” is much like “life on the farm”. It’s described as being quite “ordinary” or “homely”, and certainly Hell — which is as firmly rooted in the Germanic tongues as Heaven, no matter how many L’s you use — is not what Christianity has since made it over into. It’s simply where the ancestors go, the halls of the ancestors, the grave mound. No more, no less. And undoubtedly more than just slightly appealing to most of us, as that is where our friends and kin shall be.
There is of course a place of “punishment” in Germanic belief … called Wyrmsele among the Anglo-Saxons and Wyrmgarten among the Germans. In the Eddas it is called Nastrond, but described in terms consistent with the English and German terms … as a hall standing far from the sun, and made up of poisonous wyrms all writhing and twisted together, who spray their burning venom over all of the oath-breakers and cowards within.
The topic of Germanic afterlife beliefs is actually quite complex, and encompasses shades of “reincarnation”, but the jist of the notions we retain today of an immortal soul and an otherworldly afterlife were always present in Germanic belief and other forms of Indo-European belief. Biblically, there is no Heaven or Hell, save as these words were used to gloss other more Semitic terms … which is where the Bible, et al. comes from. Biblically, there is the Day of Resurrection and Judgement, and then either destruction in a lake of fire, dubbed Gehenna, or eternal life in a recreated Eden, ie. earthly paradise.
In the end, afterlife beliefs, particularly the belief in Heaven, are more for the living than the dead. Unlike Christianity our indigenous beliefs were less concerned about where one ends up and more concerned about what one leaves behind. As the Havamal puts it, “Cattle die, kinsmen die, and so shall you yourself. But I know one thing that never dies … the good repute of each man dead.”