Symbols of Afterlife – part 1
Odinist lore goes into a great amount of detail concerning the eschatology of our ancestors. This lore is an extension of our funerary rites and explains, in a metaphorical sense, what happens when we cross over after death. As with all things in our stories, the ideas presented are symbolic, but in their underlying context they may explain the nature of afterlife phenomena. Some of them even correspond to modern accounts of Out-Of-Body-Experiences and Near-Death-Experiences, while overlapping such explanations from other cultures. Such experiences should be kept in mind when we examine these ancient descriptions, for certainly there would have been some recollection and recording of identical events among our Odinic forefathers.
We now investigate the symbols within the Helfaring that manifest in the lore immediately after the funeral. These symbols can be broken down into three categories: the Transformative, the Moral, and the Tributary. The Transformative symbols represent moving from one state to another or altering one's form in some way. The Moral symbols deal directly with morality and how the laws of our faith are expressed in the eschatology. The Tributary symbols are reverent, giving survivors an archetype that allows us to honor those that have died. In order to properly present each symbol I will state which category it falls under, quote from The Asatru Edda on it, then explain its significance in our afterlife examination.
The Journey to Hel: (Transformative) "One must travel to the uppermost north, into Jotunheim, to get to Jormungrund. The entire road there is said to be fraught with peril and is almost impassable for mortals. You must sail across the ocean, which girds the earth, putting the sun and stars behind your back, journey beneath the realm of night, and finally pass into the regions, which suffer perennial darkness without a glimmer of daylight. From there, in the midst of Jotunheim's monstrous horde, you will find the passage towards Hel." (TAE XXIV.17)In the Near-Death-Experiences recorded in reaching the next life a journey is always required and is frequently recalled, meaning that the transfer is not instantaneous. If one is going to move from one realm to another obviously some type of traveling is to take place, which tells us that we are still within the realm of logic and reason in examining this. Our ancestors believed that a vehicle, such as a horse, a ship, wagon, chariot, etc. would aid the deceased in their faring, so they burned or buried them with them. The idea was that if the object or animal were treated the same as the dead (i.e. burned on the pyre or buried) their inner essence would depart as well, which was the same concept with giving grave-gifts. While we know now that this was not necessary, these symbols can still be a part of our honoring of the dead and their passage into the next world of existence. The symbols and traditions, as we know, empower the gathered and the event, and send forth our love and devotion to those moving on.
The Guide: (Moral) "All will have a guide that will lead them to Hel, which appears before them right before their death, carrying their summons to the Helthing." (XXIV.15)Also known as a psychopomp or 'soul-guide,' this is the Spirit that leads you through the Underworld and shows you where to go. Such a symbol is based on the relatively simple idea that the dead have entered a strange and foreign land they have never seen before, so they need some way to navigate through it. However, the soul-guide herself (she is always female) represents how the person lived and what station they held in life. The hero is led by a Valkyrie, who has used her spear to point out the warriors to fall on the battlefield, or even at home in their bed. Those who have not lived as warriors have their guides as well, including those who have died of old age, children, and those who have succumbed to disease, accidents, or slayings. In any case, it is likely that these guides are female ancestors, just as we believe the fylgjas to be. It thus becomes the principal role of the women of our folk to be caretakers and watchers in the next life, just as they are in this one. We do know that the fylgja herself awaits the dead one in Hel (XXIV.33), so the guide is another character altogether. The dead walk mute and those who have been cruel or tainted with terrible acts of disgrace shall suffer greatly upon the Helways. The fylgja is not present for this.
The Helgate: (Transformative) "To begin with, all of the dead travel a common path, called the Helway. They are directed on the same traveled road, and the same Helgate opens itself daily for the multitudes of spirits who wait for different lots... They gather outside the eastern Helgate, one of the four situated at each point of Jormungrund." (XXIV.18)The Helgate represents a division from life to death. The previous journey has been in the world of the living, and is a likely description of the North Pole—a place so remote and desolate our ancestors did not dare to travel to it. To go there was almost certain death, for it would be impossible to return. Therefore it must have led to the world of the dead. But we do not enter the next word until we have passed through the Helgate, which is something the living is not supposed to do. This is made clear when Odur traveled the Helways and came across Modgud, guardian of the Gjallarbridge who "asked Odur about his name and family and said that the previous day five fylkings [units] of dead men had ridden across the bridge, "yet the bridge echoed more under you alone, and you lack the litr of the dead. Why do you ride here on the Helways?"" (LXV.3)The idea is that only the bravest, most special among the living can travel through the land of the dead, and even then they are not particularly welcome. Odur had already become a God at this point, and still he is questioned by Hel's sentinel. The gate then signifies this division, which is locked by the key called Gylling "The Loud Grating," probably signifying the immensity of the devise that opens for the dead to pass through.There should also be recognition for the fact that the Helgate is found in the eastern region of Jormungrund, even though, as we are told, it is "one of the four situated at each point." The east is the land of the dawn, where the sun rises to bring forth a new day, a new beginning. This is significant for the new beginning the dead are embarking upon, which begins at the eastern Helgate. This symbolism will continue to develop along their journey.
The Heath: (Moral) "The high road in Jormungrund first goes west through deep and dark dales. At one place the dead have to go across a mile wide heath that is overgrown with thorns and has no trails. Then it is good to have Helshoes as protection for the feet. Because of this, a dead man's relatives should not neglect to bind Helshoes to the body before it is burned...If they do not have them, and in their lives they have been unmerciful towards those who have walked the thorny paths of life, then they do not get across it without torn and bloody feet. But for the merciful, who lack Helshoes, there are some hanging from a tree which grows from where the thorny path begins" (XXIV.28).The dead have entered the next world. It is dark, they are mute (see XXIV.26), and have retained their ethereal, corpse-like form. However, they are not alone, and for the merciful their journey will be pleasant and without worry. The nine day journey through darkness represents the mourning period, when we honor the dead with remembrance and longing. In the Rusila account of Ibn Fadlan they place the chieftain under a canopy for ten days before the proceedings begin, and some researchers think that the reckoning of time differed between the two people, Islamic and Nordic, so that for the latter it was a period of nine days. Perhaps this long wake was to culminate in the funeral pyre so that the dead could be reborn on the same day. In any case, the period of nine days represents the time when the dead enter the final stage of their Helfaring and enter their afterlife home.The heath is the first test the dead must undergo in representing how their urlag is balanced before they are judged. We would compare the thorns to the 'sleep-thorn' (svefnþorn) Odin used to punish Hild when she gave an unworthy man victory, or the thorn-rods (limar) that will be used to drive the damned to Niflhel. Here we have a beautiful rendition of the karmic principle: if you do not show mercy and compassion to others, you will not receive mercy or compassion when you walk through the heath. The choice then becomes yours, and only you can direct your heart toward others. However you choose, the universe—The Web of Wyrd—will act accordingly, in this life or the next.In ancient cultures trees are always a symbol of life, which we should compare to the creation of humans from trees and Yggdrasill, the World-Tree. On the opposite end of the spectrum, stone always represents death, as with gravestones, cairns, tombs, memorial stones, etc. Ancient stone circles, such as Stonehenge, had their counterparts in wooden circles near settlements that represent the life of the community. The heath and the Helshoe tree are thus welcoming you to your new life while also showing your contribution to the Spiritual Collective, which was strengthened rather than weakened by your life and your actions. The merciful deserve mercy, while the cruel demand retribution, simple as that.
The River: (Moral) "After this the dead come to a river with rushing water in which sharp-edged irons fill its torrents...Foot wide boards float there, where no bridge is to be found. The boards give support when the feet of the merciful step on them, and carry them over the river unharmed. The planks represent their good thoughts, good words, and good deeds. They slip away from the feet of the unmerciful, who fall into the river and wade through it in severe pain. Although they are terribly cut-up by the irons, they appear without a mark on them from this when they come up onto the other strand" (XXIV.29).Again, this river, called Gjöll, represents the moral status of the wayfarers, who must have been compassionate in their lives for the boards to stand firm. However, in one instance we have the static, obstructing forest of thorns that is difficult to pass for the unmerciful, while in the next there are the flowing waters that contain sharp irons. This dichotomy is significant, and likely represents different mindsets or motivations for one's cruelty. First, there is the unmoving, inflexible 'disciple of death' we discussed above, then there is the disloyal, wavering, and treacherous whose devotions shift as the eddying currents. In either case, they are to be tormented from the moment they set forth into the Underworld, both as a symbol of their urlagic destiny and as a sign to the Gods what type of judgment must be given.Just as with the Helshoe tree in the heath, we have boards made of wood, the symbol of life, that protect the merciful from the dangers of the river. That these boards represent their "good thoughts, good words, and good deeds" once again displays the moral foundation within these obstacles. It should also be noted that in ancient processions a river crossing was especially sacred, as with the aforementioned Stonehenge walk where people would proceed from the wooden circle, across the Avon river to their final destination. The crossing of the river, as with the procession itself, likely represents the flow of life and its progression towards death. Rivers of the dead are prolific in ancient religions, so the symbolism is very important. Once the deceased spirits have crossed the Gjöll river for the first time, their moral tests are complete and their next challenge will be facing judgment before the Gods.
Odisbook: The Book of Odr