THE DOOM OF THE NORNS:
THE JUDGEMENT ON EACH ONE DEAD
In the Norse sources, death is often spoken of as norna dómr, norna sköp, or norna kviðr —“the judgment of the Norns.” Their doom is inescapable. Because Snorri does not mention one, many have assumed that the Norse religion lacked a judgement seat for the dead. Yet, a careful examination of the sources reveals just such a process. For example, describing mál-runar (speech-runes), the Eddaic poem Sigurdrífumál 12 says:
12. Mál-(speech-) runes you must know,
if you would that no one
requite you for injury with hate.
Those you must wind,
those you must wrap round,
those you must altogether place
in that court (Thing),
where people have
to go into full judgment.
This heathen verse tells us that speech-runes are particularly useful in “that court” where people go into “full judgment.” What is meant by “full judgment” is not stated. Hávamál 77 also appears to speak of just such a judgment. It informs us that everyone who dies is “judged” without describing the process. This judgment, it says, is eternal.
77. "Your cattle shall die;
your kindred shall die;
you yourself shall die;
one thing I know
which never dies:
the judgment on each one dead."
This stanza, in conjunction with Hávamál 76, is typically interpreted to mean that the fame one wins while alive is undying. A bit of reflection by a person with a few years under their belt reveals that is not the case. We know that the deeds of most of those who lived two or three generations before us are wholley forgotten. Yet, stanza 77 says that the judgment on "each one dead" never dies, not just the famous. Clearly, something else is meant.
Where and how this judgment occurs is of great importance to determining the heathen belief regarding the dead. Thankfully, the Eddaic poems also contain clues that illuminate the process.
Fáfnismál 10 informs us:
77. “For there is a time
when every man
shall journey hence to Hel."
Since "every man" must fare to Hel, even those chosen for Valhöll are no exemption. In several sources, we find examples of warriors killed in the line of duty who are said to come “to Hel”. Thus, like all men, warriors too first travel “to Hel” before ascending to Valhöll. Hel is its antechamber. Gisli Surson's Saga (ch. 24) confirms this, when it says that it is custom to bind Hel-shoes on the feet of the dead; even those of whom there was no doubt that Valhöll was their final destiny received Hel-shoes like the rest, það er tíðska að binda mönnum helskó, sem menn skulu á ganga til Valhallar, ("It is custom to bind hel-shoes to men, so that they shall walk on to Valhöll"). Since the youngest Norn, Skuld, is also the foremost of the valkyries (cp. Völuspá 20, 30), we see that Urd and her sisters indeed have some role to play in the process. Similarly, in Gylfaginning 50, five fylki ('military troops') accompany Baldur to the underworld.
In the poem Sólarljóð, after traveling the road to Hel, the deceased poet informs us that after entering the Hel-gates, dead men must sit on “Norns’ seats” for nine days. What they wait for is not stated.
51. In the Norns' seat
nine day I sat,
thence I was mounted on a horse:
there the giantess's sun
through the dripping clouds of heaven.
In Sólarljóð 44, he informs us that his tongue “became like wood,” (tunga mín var til trés metin), making it impossible to speak. Hávamál 111 describes a similar scene:
112. ‘Tis time to speak
from the sage’s chair. -
By the well of Urd
I sat silently,
I saw and meditated,
I listened to men’s words.
113. Of runes I heard discourse,
nor of sage counsels were they silent,
at the High One’s hall.
In the High One’s hall
Thus I heard them speak.
Here, a seat by Urd’s well is directly connected with Odin, the High One and his hall. What is said is consistent with several heathen accounts, where runes are required to loosen the tongue of a dead man allowing him the power of speech. In Hávamál 157, Odin employs speech-runes when he carves í rúnum, so that a corpse from the gallows comes down and mælir (speaks) with him. According to Saxo (Book 1), Hadding’s companion Hardgrep places a piece of wood carved with runes under the tongue of a dead man. The corpse recovers consciousness and the power of speech, and sings a terrible song, cursing her for it. In Guðrúnarkviða in fyrsta, it is told how Gudrun, mute and almost lifeless (gerðist að deyja), sat near Sigurd's dead body. One of the kinswomen present lifts the veil from Sigurd's head. At the sight of her loved one, Gudrun awakens, bursts into tears, and is able to speak. Brynhild then curses the being (vættur) which "gave speech-runes to Gudrun" (st. 23), that is to say, freed her tongue, until then sealed as in death. Thus it follows that the dead pass silently into Hel. We have additional confirmation of this in Gyfaginning 50, when Hermod rides to Hel on Sleipnir, seeking Baldur. Madgud, the watch at the golden bridge over Gjöll says he alone makes more noise that five fylki, "military troops," who preceded him the day before.
In Hávamál 112-113, the speaker “sits silently” meditating by Urd’s well, listening to discourse, just as in Sólarljóð, where the dead man sits with wooden tongue “on the Norns’ seats.” Since this is the place speech-runes are most useful, it must be the court where men go into “full judgment” (Sigurdrífumál 12).
Without drawing any conclusions, let’s restate what we have learned according to these heathen sources:
1. All men eventually come to Hel, even warriors whose final destination is Valhöll (Fafnismál 10, Gisli Súrsson's Saga, ch. 24, etc).
2. Every dead man is judged. The judgment is eternal (Hávamál 77).
3. There is a court at “Urd’s well” with a rostrum where discourse is heard. There, a person sits silently listening to Odin, “The High One” (Hávamál 111).
4. Dead men “sit in Norn’s seats” for nine days before moving onto their final fate. Urd and her sisters are Norns (Sólarljóð 51).
5. Dead men’s tongues are cold and silent, unless one possesses “mal-runes” which are particularly helpful in “that court” where men go into “full judgment” (Sigurdrífumál 12).
Based on this, it is reasonable to conclude that in the genuine heathen conception, the dead first gather in Hel by Urd’s well, and more specifically at a court found there, awaiting judgment, their final fate not yet determined. From a wide variety of sources, we know that those who die on the battlefield will eventually pass over Bifröst to Valhöll (located in the celestial city of Asgard), while “wicked” people will “die” again and be sent northward to Niflhel (Vafþrúðnismál 44). Presumably, the rest will remain in Hel, the warm green fields surrounding Urd’s thingstead, to dwell with their families. These, Völuspá speaks of "those on the hel-ways". Saxo (Book 1) tells us this realm is sunny and fertile.
At this juncture, the destination of the dead is not certain, apparently even for those killed on the battlefield. In Njáls Saga, ch. 88, of the heathen Hrapp, who had burnt a heathen temple and stripped the idols of their riches, Hakon says: "The gods are in no haste to seek vengeance, the man who did this shall be driven out of Valhöll forever," (Magnus Magnusson and Hermann Pálsson translation).
If the purpose of the journey to Hel is to appear at the court by Urd’s well and wait for judgment and even warriors chosen for Valhöll must stop here before passing over Bifröst to Asgard and Valhöll, we might suspect that the gods have some involvement in the matter, since ultimately it is Odin and Freyja who decides who enters their halls, Valhöll and Sessrumnir. Hávamál 113 equates this court with the "High One's", Odin's hall, while Grímnismál 14 states:
14. “Folkvang is the ninth,
there Freyja directs
the sittings in the hall.
She chooses half the fallen each day,
but Odin the other half.”
Since the gods are in no hurry to seek vengeance against those who desecrate their shrines, this suggests they expect there will be a time for certain redress in the future. Such a view might give comfort to the faithful heathen who saw such men prosper in life, seemingly unpunished for their violations of heathen moral laws. They could take solace in their knowledge that the gods would act in the due course of time, if not in this lifetime, then the next.
While other Eddaic poems speak of a judgment on each one dead, place dead men “on Norn’s seats,” and speak of a court at Urd’s well, the Eddaic poem Grímnismál, stanzas 29 and 30, inform us that the gods ride over Bifröst “every day” to sit in judgment by Urd’s well. It stands to reason then, that they sit in judgement of the dead there. For as Fafnismál 10 says, all men ultimately come to Hel, even those whose ultimate destiny is Valhalla. To arrive there, they must go the same way from which the gods came, over the Bifrost bridge.
-William Reaves, Author of Odin’s Wife (2018)
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