Afterlife: the road from Niflhel and the whole following path
The Place: (Moral) Religions throughout the world have some notion of a realm of the damned, including the Hebrew Gehenna or Sheol, the Islamic Jahannam, the Naraka of Hinduism, and the Bhumis of Jainism. In every inception the idea is the same—to punish those who had violated the tenets of the faith. In the ancient religions these violations would represent actual crimes against other people rather than the commandments of a dictatorial god micromanaging your every move.
The divine tribunal of the dead is supposed to mimic that of our own world, and thus the law is the same: do not murder people, do not rob them, do not slander them, etc. The variations between each religion lie within the duration of the damnation, or how it was imposed upon those deserving it. In Christian thought this is an eternal 'hellfire,' an everlasting torment for those who would not obey their god while alive. Even Jews have denounced this idea and view the doctrine as a temporary cleansing of the soul, which does not exceed twelve months except for sins of heresy and perversion of the faith.
The Hindus and Buddhists believe that attainment of 'hell' is a direct result of bad karma, which must be cleansed or 'burned up' before one can move into the next incarnation. Once the stain of their crimes has been removed, they can renew their path towards higher existence. This could either result in their transfer to the realms of bliss, or a reincarnation back to the earthly life.
Given the common origins of Hinduism and Odinism, and the fact that our urlag is identical to their karma, this view is likely the same as the one our ancestors held. In fact, we can see evidence for this in our sources, such as the reincarnation of Helgi and Svava (Helgakviða Hjörvarþssonar, Helgakviða Hundingsbana II), and most especially the rebirths of Gullveig. She traveled throughout the worlds performing evil deeds, spreading Seidr, the black art, and corrupting all of the Gods' order. Three times she was killed for this and three times she was reborn, obviously in a different form, and in each incident she makes her way back into the Gods' good graces. She also obtains a different name with each birth: Heid, Aurboda, and Gullveig (the name she has now). So in each incarnation she was given a chance to cleanse her urlag and return to the divine realms, but each time she returned to her evil ways and had to be slain again. Finally, the Gods realize that she would continue to be reborn, even if they killed her a thousand times, so instead of this they banished her to the Ironwood.
From this we can see that our afterlife belief on damnation is based on justice, not eternal condemnation, which reflects the earthly idea that one can pay for their crimes and still find redemption. Once the sentence to Niflhel is fulfilled the one damned may either be reborn (thus regaining the divine gifts in a new form) or be allowed to move on to the lands of bliss (and rejoining with their old form), depending on the judgment of the Gods. We can only speculate on the latter idea, but reincarnation does seem to play a role in our faith based on what we have seen. As compensation and justice is a part of our worldly courts, so would they be among the Gods who inspired those systems in the first place.
To the ancients the only way to be truly purified of one's transgressions in the afterlife is to suffer the consequences for them, in the same way karma or urlag makes us suffer in this life. After death, normal forms of recompense no longer apply. You cannot simply pay a fine or endure banishment or imprisonment, for then the urlag cannot be truly balanced, the nids (disgraces) cannot be washed away. Why? Because at this point you cannot make amends to those you have harmed, for they are still living, or if dead their sorrows have been allayed by the three meads in the realms of bliss. Even if they too are nidings (disgraced ones), their forms in Niflhel are unrecognizable and their tongues remain unable to speak. In other words, you have had plenty of time to make up for your past mistakes, and if you have not then there are special means of cleansing them from your urlag that await you in Niflhel. They can only be cleansed with pain, to reflect the pain and suffering that you have caused. This is why only the most terrible deserve punishment—because they can only be recompensed with torments to mimic the hate, destruction, and betrayal that you have caused with your actions. Even then, this will only come when you are so cruel and so treacherous that you live without remorse and without trying to make amends while you still live in this life. This is why it is important for you to do so, so you can avoid such horrible punishments. In either case, when the crime has been compensated for, it's over, and you shall not be held accountable any further.
Think of this in a practical sense. In today's concept of crime and punishment, which has been built up according to the Judeo-Christian model of eternal damnation, there is never enough punishment, never enough suffering to satisfy the state's thirst for revenge. Victims and families of victims are driven into a frenzy and wish to see their assailants pay for their crimes forever, no matter what they have done. How can either side ever gain any peace under such a model? Where is the compensation? Where is the forgiveness? Honor works both ways, which means that when one has paid for their mistakes then the matter should be finished. From this model also comes a false stigma that people cannot change, cannot turn their life around, and do not deserve a second chance. These Draconian attitudes stretch into our courts where prosecutors only wish to add more 'wins' to their belts rather than actually solve crimes, which has led to an increase in innocent people going to prison for long periods of time. Even if the person is found innocent they can still lose their reputation, their job, their family, and even their home after paying a fortune in legal fees. The system is broken because it is founded upon a faulty model, which is a distortion of the system of recompense established by our ancestors.
Like Hel and Valhall, Niflhel has symbols that we can examine in order to better understand the moral and religious values of our faith. The punishments in Niflhel, which display the results of certain nids, can be looked at in reverse form, thus helping us to formulate the virtues of Odinism. In other words—if cruelty is a vice with a specific torment, we know that its opposite, kindness, must be one of our virtues. This is how we discovered the Nine Virutes (Honor, Honesty, Courage, Kindness, Loyalty, Wisdom, Independence, Generosity, and Piety) and the Nine Vices (Murder, Perjury, Adultery, Sacrilege, Greed, Thievery, Treason, Slander, and Cruelty). Each of these vices has its own punishment in Niflhel, and in the lore the symbols are laid out in such a way that we can see clearly the fate one will endure if they do not act in accordance with the Norns' decrees.
The Thorn-Rods: (Moral) "When the judgment over the nidings is pronounced, they have to walk to meet their terrible fate. Their former fylgja weeps when they see their departure; these norns bewail the náir (corpses, i.e. the damned), and continue to feel sorrow and sympathy for them to the last. The cords of Hel are tightly bound around their sides, and they are too strong to break. It is not easy to go free. They are driven along their way by the Heiptir, who, armed with thorn-rods [limar], unmercifully lash them on hesitating heels." (XXVI.3)
We have already seen the use of thorns as a tool of punishment in the heath at the beginning of the Helfaring, which heralds for the damned what is coming to them. We can include with the above sources concerning the thorn, the Anglo-Saxon Rune Poem, which states: "The thorn is exceedingly sharp, an evil thing for any knight to touch, uncommonly severe on all who sit among them." This corresponds to the Thurs rune, which looks like a thorn and is said to "cause the sickness of women" and is "women's torment" (VI.12). This is the same rune that Odur cut for Gerd when he cursed her for refusing Frey's hand: "Thurs I cut for you, and three more runes: longing and madness and lust" (LXVII.38). Here the thorn-rods drive the damned to their destination in Niflhel. The Heiptir are Teutonic Goddesses of revenge, similar to the Greek Furies, and thus represent retribution for these crimes that were not recompensed in the first life. They are under the rule of Mani, the Moon-God, and it is to him that we offer and pray so that we may avoid their awful torment.
We give blót to Mani when we cannot personally compensate for the transgressions we have committed, but only when we absolutely cannot, for this must never replace our duties to honor.
There is a contrast in the above passage that we should also examine. Here we have the cold, hard force of justice beating at the heels of those who violated our laws, while at the same time the fylgja continues to show her love and compassion. This should demonstrate to us that, even though nidings must be dealt with harshly, they must not be hated or thought of as completely worthless. Odin tells us that "The sons of men bear vices and virtues mingled in their breasts, no one is so good that no failing attends him, nor so bad as to be good for nothing ». (LIII.17). The fylgja understands this well, and knows that compassion and love should still be felt for those condemned, for she understands more than any what truly lies in their heart. Her lesson to us then is to have that same compassion towards others, even when we know that justice or war or negative urlag rightly afflicts them: we never allow our hearts to turn towards hatred.
The Journey: (Moral) "Their path from Urd's Well goes north through Mimir's realm. It is arranged so that they should have to see the regions of bliss before their arrival in the world of torture. Thus they get to know what they have forfeited." (XXVI.4)The journey of the damned continues through Mimir's beautiful glittering fields, past Breidablik where Baldur and Nanna live, past Mimir's Well, and then into Nidafjall where they see Hvergelmir and the Nine Giantesses who turn the Grotti-Mill. The viewing of these wondrous and beautiful sights is part of their torment, and may be the principal reason why our ancestors imagined Niflhel as a part of Jormungrund instead of its own separate world. Now the damned know how their afterlife could have been had they not continuously succumbed to their cruel and selfish desires. So we see from the very first moment that the damned enter Jormungrund they experience pain and suffering, even as they are crossing the deadly heath in the beginning, then the river of sharp irons, and now the binding of Hel's cords and the constant driving of the Heiptir with their thorn-rods through the lands they will not be able to dwell in; at least not any time soon.
This may be another reason for their traversing the lands of bliss: this would then act as a strong motivation for them to endure the torments they are to face. Knowing that once your urlag is cleansed you will be given another chance at actually living in these incredibly beautiful regions, it likely helps them to make it through their stay in Niflhel. This may have resulted in concepts of reincarnation each time a new level of spiritual enlightenment is attained, for in their previous incarntation they have both seen bliss and suffered the pain of justice in order to evolve. This would be seen as something powerful enough to affect them in their next life, in a way that sets them on an honorable path, but as we have witnessed with Gullveig, this is not always the case.
The Nágates: (Transformative) "Moving on, they see in the near distance a gloomy, decayed place looking most of all like a misty cloud. Niflhel is a sunless region, a land that knows neither stars nor the light of day, but is shrouded in everlasting night. Stakes raised at intervals along battlements display the severed heads of men. Before the gates, called Nágates [Corpse-Gates], they find wolfhounds of uncommon savagery keeping vigilant watch over the entrance. Howling and barking from the gate- keeping hounds of Niflhel betokens the arrival of the damned." (XXVI.12)Just as the Helgates are the barriers between the land of mortals and the Underworld, the Nágates lie between the realm of the damned and the blessed dead. The náir here get the first glimpse of the horrors that await them when they see mist and gloom and decay, the severed heads of men on stakes, and the equivalents of Cerberus howling before the gates. This is the welcoming to their new home, where they are to pay for their crimes in unspeakable torment. They have now made the transition from the glorious realms or Urd and Mimir, into the terrifying lands of giants and demons hungry to torture their latest victims.Here we see the beginning of the transition and transformation from the state of being in the lands of light to the lands of darkness.
The warmth of Mimir's and Urd's realms is now replaced with unspeakable cold, and the harrowing howls of Niflhel's hounds herald the coming of the damned. These hounds have their counterpart in Valhall, where Odin's wolfhounds watch vigilantly over the Einherjar (see above), and thus they represent watchfulness and awareness. They keep the unwanted from entering the lands of misty darkness, but more particularly they help to keep its inhabitants within. Combined with the Nágates, they are able to keep this prison secure, at least until Ragnarok, when all fetters are broken.
The Poison: (Transformative) "At the Nágates, the dead are given a deadly drink, called Eitr [Poison], and here die dead men from Hel. Just as those blessed with Lofstirr [Laudatory Judgment] receive the Dyrar Veigar, the damned must drink of this poison to die their second deaths in Jormungrund, and thus become a corpse for the second time. This poison is said to come from the veins of the demons in Niflhel and restores their bodies, but only so they can feel the torments that await them. It is the mead much mixed with venom, which foreboded evil. The Eitr does not loosen the speechless tongue of the damned. They suffer their agonies without uttering a sound, and in Niflhel only the torturing demons speak. However, when the wights of torture so desire, and force and egg them on, they can produce a howl." (XXVI.13)
We are told after this that once the poison is ingested, the divine elements depart, to return to their source (i.e. the Gods), and the damned then acquire a new, ugly form befitting their foul natures. Just as the blessed dead must be purified from all sorrow and negativity before entering Helheim, those entering Niflhel must be cleansed of all that is divine and holy, so that they can become infused with the powers of chaos and destruction, which they embraced in their first life. Because of this they must die a second time, so that they will be even further removed from their earthly existence, which was a blessing given to them by the Gods that they took for granted. The divine elements must never come into contact with the foul, putrid nature of Niflhel's domain, so the poison creates the separation needed to make this happen. These elements may then return to the fruits of life, the Manna Mjötud, so they can be reborn or reincarnated once the time of punishment is done.
The Punishments: (Moral) "An abyss leads from [Niflhel's entrance] down into nine enormous caves of punishment situated below Niflhel. From the abyss rises a repulsive steam and the river Slid spews dark, slimy masses of water down its slope. It is in this abyss that Nidhogg and the other flying demons plunge with their offerings. Before they deliver them they bore their beaks, jaws, and claws into their limbs and tear them to shreds, but these grow together again: a third death is not given to the damned. After this, they are divided between caves of torture in accordance with the mortal sins they have committed." (XXVI.19)
After the damned have imbibed the Eitr, the demons of Niflhel fly down and capture them in their claws to deliver them to Nástrands 'The Corpse-Strand,' the place of punishment.
The specificity of the punishments in Niflhel, such as spewing venom onto murderers and purjerers, or tearing the eyes out of slanderers, represents sentences administered by the Helthing, which further suggests a limited time for each judgement. There is no eternal damnation, where all burn in the same fire, no matter what—the guy who just couldn't believe in a certain religion suffers the same fate as he who raped and murdered children.
There is even a suggestion of degrees of punishment in our lore, as the adulterer must wade through the "waste-venom" that has been spewed directly onto the murderers and perjurers by the serpents of Nástrands. In any case, the ways the damned suffer in Niflhel are reflective of the pains they brought to others while alive. Blasphemers are among the damned, but only when they directly insult or attack the Gods and will not make amends, not simply because they do not believe. Such insults or attacks would be defaming of temples or sacred burial grounds, or cursing the Gods without provocation. Loki is the great blasphemer of the Gods, who partook in deicide as well when he orchestrated the death of Baldur. He ends up bound by the entrails of his son while a serpent drips painful venom on his face; his torment so excruciating that he causes earthquakes from it. Thus we see that he ends up being punished as a murderer, a God-killer, which is his greatest crime. His other son, Fenrir, is bound but has no serpent over him, for his binding is one of precaution as the Gods witnessed his tremendous growth coupled with the development of his chaotic nature. Again, we see degrees of punishment.
These ideas of punishing the damned are the foundation of Odinist morality and display the vices and virtues of our faith. We learn from them that such morals represent harmful and destructive behaviors that directly and willfully hurt other, including the Gods. If you cause pain and suffering, you will receive pain and suffering, for that is the law of urlag. The only way out of this is to compensate your victim and make things right. The symbols of Niflhel reflect the dark side of man's Spirit and whether or not we will succumb to our selfish desires. It also reminds us that our actions have consequences, both for others and for ourselves. If we lose sight of this, we can quickly head down the path of self-destruction.***In their most basic essence, the Odinic symbols of the afterlife represent the nature of man— his tendencies towards heroism, towards peaceful existence, or towards corruption.
All of us have each of these tendencies within us; it is simply how we balance them that forms the kernel of our personalities. If we move towards chaos, towards selfishness, towards isolation, then we will be harming ourselves as much as others and will face consequences for these actions. But if we work for the order of the Gods and convergence, we then willingly partake in that order, which benefits us and those around us. If we express love and harmony we will have love and harmony in our lives; if we express hate and discord we will receive the same. This is a principle as old as time itself. Reward and punishment are part of life and death, and in the end we count our blessings and know that we will be given Lofstirr because of the love and blessings we have in our life. Not just monetary or material blessings, but our familial bonds, our contributions to others, our happy memories, and all those things that we know have real value. The gifts given on the funeral pyre, the memorials, the eulogies; these are signs to the Gods that you are worthy of bliss, and at the same time your indication of such, so you can cross over without worry or fear. The hated and reviled know when they are such, no matter what ceremonies are performed, and the loved know the same.
This is the measure of our lives, simple as that. It cannot be based on how much you 'believe,' which is subjective, but rather what you do with that faith—for "Faith is Participation" (Hug. 10)—and how well you lived your life.
As Odinism is a religion of action more than words, we can only accept a doctrine of good works and deeds as the basis of our moral and eschatological beliefs, and our piety revolves around living by the social standards and rules put into play by the Gods and the Norns so long ago.