The modern conception of the removal of those fallen by the sword to Asgard is that the valkyries carried them immediately through blue space to the halls above. The heathens did not conceive the matter in this manner.
It is true that the mythological horses might carry their riders through the air without pressing a firm foundation with their hoofs. But such a mode of travel was not the rule, even among the gods, and, when it did happen, it attracted attention even among them. Compare Gylfaginning, i. 118, which quotes strophes from a heathen source. The bridge Bifrost would not have been built or established for the daily connection between Asgard and Urd's subterranean realm if it had been unnecessary in the mythological world of fancy. Mane's way in space would not have been regarded as a road in the concrete sense, that quakes and rattles when Thor's thunder-chariot passes over it (Haustl., Skaldsk., ch. 16), had it not been thought that Mane was safer on a firm road than without one of that sort. To every child that grew up in the homes of our heathen fathers the question must have lain near at hand, what such roads and bridges were for, if the gods had no advantage from them. The mythology had to be prepared for such questions, and in this, as in other cases, it had answers wherewith to satisfy that claim on causality and consistency which even [Pg 463] the most naïve view of the world presents. The answer was: If the Bifrost bridge breaks under its riders, as is to happen in course of time, then their horses would have to swim in the sea of air (Bilraust brotnar, er their á bru fara, oc svima i modo marir—Fafn., 15., compare a strophe of Kormak, Kormak's Saga, p. 259, where the atmosphere is called the fjord of the gods, Dia fjördr). A horse does not swim as fast and easily as it runs. The different possibilities of travel are associated with different kinds of exertion and swiftness. The one method is more adequate to the purpose than the other. The solid connections which were used by the gods and which the mythology built in space are, accordingly, objects of advantage and convenience. The valkyries, riding at the head of their chosen heroes, as well as the gods, have found solid roads advantageous, and the course they took with their favouriteswas not the one presented in our mythological text-books. Grimnersmal (str. 21; see No. 93) informs us that the breadth of the atmospheric sea is too great and its currents too strong for those riding on their horses from the battlefield to wade across.
In the 45th chapter of Egil Skallagrimson's saga we read how Egil saved himself from men, whom King Erik Blood-axe sent in pursuit of him to Saud Isle. While they were searching for him there, he had stolen to the vicinity of the place where the boat lay in which those in pursuit had rowed across. Three warriors guarded the boat. Egil succeeded in surprising them, and in giving one of them his death-wound ere the latter was able to defend himself. The second fell in a duel on the[Pg 464] strand. The third, who sprang into the boat to make it loose, fell there after an exchange of blows. The saga has preserved a strophe in which Egil mentions this exploit to his brother Thorolf and his friend Arinbjorn, whom he met after his flight from Saud Isle. There he says:
at thrymreynis thjónar
thrir nökkurrir Hlakkar,
til hásalar Heljar
helgengnir, för dvelja.
"Three of those who serve the tester of the valkyriedin (the warlike Erik Blood-axe) will late return; they have gone to the lower world, to Hel's high hall."
The fallen ones were king's men and warriors. They were slain by weapons and fell at their posts of duty, one from a sudden, unexpected wound, the others in open conflict. According to the conception of the mythological text-books, these sword-slain men should have been conducted by valkyries through the air to Valhal. But the skald Egil, who as a heathen born about the year 904, and who as a contemporary of the sons of Harald Fairhair must have known the mythological views of his fellow-heathen believers better than the people of our time, assures us positively that these men from King Erik's body-guard, instead of going immediately to Valhal, went to the lower world and to Hel's high hall there. He certainly would not have said anything of the sort, if those for whom he composed the strophe had not regarded this idea as both possible and correct.
The question now is: Does this Egil's statement stand[Pg 465] alone and is it in conflict with those other statements touching the same point which the ancient heathen records have preserved for us? The answer is, that in these ancient records there is not found a single passage in conflict with Egil's idea, but that they all, on the contrary, fully agree with his words, and that this harmony continues in the reports of the first Christian centuries in regard to this subject.
All the dead and also those fallen by the sword come first to Hel. Thence the sword-slain come to Asgard, if they have deserved this destiny.
In Gisle Surson's saga (ch. 24) is mentioned the custom of binding Hel-shoes on the feet of the dead. Warriors in regard to whom there was no doubt that Valhal was their final destiny received Hel-shoes like all others, that er tidska at binda mönnum helskó, sem menn, skulo á ganga till Valhallar. It would be impossible to explain this custom if it had not been believed that those who were chosen for the joys of Valhal were obliged, like all others, to travel á Helvegum. Wherever this custom prevailed, Egil's view in regard to the fate which immediately awaited sword-fallen men was general.
When Hermod betook himself to the lower world to find Balder he came, as we know, to the golden bridge across the river Gjöll. Urd's maid-servant, who watches the bridge, mentioned to him that the day before five fylki of dead men had rode across the same bridge. Consequently all these dead are on horseback and they do not come separately or a few at a time, but in large troops called fylki, an expression which, in the Icelandic literature,[Pg 466] denotes larger or smaller divisions of an army—legions, cohorts, maniples or companies in battle array; and with fylki the verb fylkja, to form an army or a division of an army in line of battle, is most intimately connected. This indicates with sufficient clearness that the dead here in question are men who have fallen on the field of battle and are on their way to Hel, each one riding, in company with his fallen brothers in arms, with those who belonged to his own fylki. The account presupposes that men fallen by the sword, whose final destination is Asgard, first have to ride down to the lower world. Else we would not find these fylkes on a Helway galloping across a subterranean bridge, into the same realm as had received Balder and Nanna after death.
It has already been pointed out that Bifrost is the only connecting link between Asgard and the lower regions of the universe. The air was regarded as an ether sea which the bridge spanned, and although the horses of mythology were able to swim in this sea, the solid connection was of the greatest importance. The gods used the bridge every day (Grimnismal, Gylfaginning). Frost giants and mountain-giants are anxious to get possession of it, for it is the key to Asgard. It therefore has its special watchman in the keen-eyed and vigilant Heimdal. When in Ragnarok the gods ride to the last conflict they pass over Bifrost (Fafnersmal). The bridge does not lead to Midgard. Its lower ends were not conceived as situated among mortal men. It stood outside and below the edge of the earth's crust both in the north and in the south. In the south it descended to Urd's [Pg467] fountain and to the thingstead of the gods in the lower world (see the accompanying drawing, intended to make these facts intelligible). From this mythological topographical arrangement it follows of necessity that the valkyries at the head of the chosen slain must take their course through the lower world, by the way of Urd's fountain and the thingstead of the gods, if they are to ride on Bifrost bridge to Asgard, and not be obliged to betake themselves thither on swimming horses.
There are still two poems extant from the heathen time, which describe the reception of sword-fallen kings in Valhal. The one describes the reception of Erik Blood-axe, the other that of Hakon the Good.
When King Erik, with five other kings and their attendants of fallen warriors, come riding up thither, the gods hear on their approach a mighty din, as if the foundations of Asgard trembled. All the benches of Valhal quake and tremble. What single probability can we now conceive as to what the skald presupposed? Did he suppose that the chosen heroes came on horses that swim in[Pg 468] the air, and that the movements of the horses in this element produced a noise that made Valhal tremble? Or that it is Bifrost which thunders under the hoofs of hundreds of horses, and quakes beneath their weight? There is scarcely need of an answer to this alternative. Meanwhile the skald himself gives the answer. For the skald makes Brage say that from the din and quaking it might be presumed that it was Balder who was returning to the halls of the gods. Balder dwells in the lower world; the connection between Asgard and the lower world is Bifrost: this connection is of such a nature that it quakes and trembles beneath the weight of horses and riders, and it is predicted in regard to Bifrost that in Ragnarok it shall break under the weight of the host of riders. Thus Brage's words show that it is Bifrost from which the noise is heard when Erik and his men ride up to Valhal. But to get to the southern end of Bifrost, Erik and his riders must have journeyed in Hel, across Gjoll, and past the thingstead of the gods near Urd's well. Thus it is by this road that the psychopomps of the heroes conduct their favourites to their final destination.
In his grand poem "Hákonármal," Eyvind Skaldaspiller makes Odin send the valkyries Gandul and Skagul "to choose among the kings of Yngve's race some who are to come to Odin and abide in Valhal." It is not said by which road the two valkyries betake themselves to Midgard, but when they have arrived there they find that a battle is imminent between the Yngve descendants, Hakon the Good, and the sons of Erik. Hakon is just putting[Pg 469] on his coat-of-mail, and immediately thereupon begins the brilliantly-described battle. The sons of Erik are put to flight, but the victor Hakon is wounded by an arrow, and after the end of the battle he sits on the battlefield, surrounded by his heroes, "with shields cut by swords and with byrnies pierced by arrows." Gandul and Skagul, "maids on horseback, with wisdom in their countenances, with helmets on their heads, and with shields before them," are near the king. The latter hears that Gandul, "leaning on her spear," says to Skagul that the wound is to cause the king's death, and now a conversation begins between Hakon and Skagul, who confirms what Gandul has said, and does so with the following words:
Rida vit nú skulum,
kvad hin rika Skagul,
græna heima goda
Odni at segja,
at un mun allvaldr koma
á hann sjálfan at sjá.
"We two (Gandul and Skagul) shall now, quoth the mighty Skagul, ride o'er green realms (or worlds) of the gods in order to say to Odin that now a great king is coming to see him."
Here we get definite information in regard to which way the valkyries journey between Asgard and Midgard. The fields through which the road goes, and which are beaten by the hoofs of their horses, are green realms of the gods (worlds, heimar).
With these green realms Eyvind has not meant the[Pg 470] blue ether. He distinguishes between blue and green. The sea he calls blue (blámær—see Heimskringla). What he expressly states, and to which we must confine ourselves, is that, according to his cosmological conception and that of his heathen fellow-believers, there were realms clothed in green and inhabited by divinities on the route the valkyries had to take when they from a battlefield in Midgard betook themselves back to Valhal and Asgard. But as valkyries and the elect ride on Bifrost up to Valhal, Bifrost, which goes down to Urd's well, must be the connecting link between the realms decked with green and Asgard. The grænar heimar through which the valkyries have to pass are therefore the realms of the lower world.
Among the realms or "worlds" which constituted the mythological universe, the realms of bliss in the lower world were those which might particularly be characterised as the green. Their groves and blooming meadows and fields of waving grain were never touched by decay or frost, and as such they were cherished by the popular fancy for centuries after the introduction of Christianity. The Low German language has also rescued the memory thereof in the expression gróni godes wang (Hel., 94, 24).
That the green realms of the lower world are called realms of the gods is also proper, for they have contained and do contain many beings of a higher or lower divine rank. There dwells the divine mother Nat, worshipped by the Teutons; there Thor's mother and her brother and sister Njord and Fulla are fostered; there Balder, Nanna, and Hödr are to dwell until Ragnarok; there Delling,[Pg 471] Billing, Rind, Dag, Mane, and Sol, and all the clan of artists gathered around Mimer, they who "smithy" living beings, vegetation, and ornaments, have their halls; there was born Odin's son Vale. Of the mythological divinities, only a small number were fostered in Asgard. When Gandul and Skagul at the head of sword-fallen men ride "o'er the green worlds of the gods," this agrees with the statement in the myth about Hermod's journey to Hel, that "fylkes" of dead riders gallop over the subterranean gold-bridge, on the other side of which glorious regions are situated, and with the statement in Vegtamskvida that Odin, when he had left Nifelhel behind him, came to a foldvegr, a way over green plains, by which he reaches the hall that awaits Balder.
In the heroic songs of the Elder Edda, and in other poems from the centuries immediately succeeding the introduction of Christianity, the memory survives that the heroes journey to the lower world. Sigurd Fafnersbane comes to Hel. Of one of Atle's brothers who fell by Gudrun's sword it is said, i Helju hon thana hafdi (Atlam., 51). In the same poem, strophe 54, one of the Niflungs says of a sword-fallen foe that they had him lamdan til Heljar.
The mythic tradition is supported by linguistic usage, which, in such phrases as berja i Hel, drepa i Hel, drepa til Heljar, færa til Heljar, indicated that those fallen by the sword also had to descend to the realm of death.
The memory of valkyries, subordinate to the goddess of fate and death, and belonging with her to the class of norns, continued to flourish in Christian times both among[Pg 472] Anglo-Saxons and Scandinavians. Among the former välcyrge, välcyrre (valkyrie) could be used to express the Latin parca, and in Beowulf occur phrases in which Hild and Gud (the valkyries Hildr and Gunnr) perform the tasks of Vyrd. In Atlamal (28), the valkyries are changed into "dead women," inhabitants of the lower world, who came to choose the hero and invite him to their halls. The basis of the transformation is the recollection that the valkyries were not only in Odin's service, but also in that of the lower world goddess Urd (compare Atlamal, 16, where they are called norns), and that they as psychopomps conducted the chosen Heroes to Hel on their way to Asgard.
Gods and Goddesses of the Northland
By VIKTOR RYDBERG, Ph.D.,
MEMBER OF THE SWEDISH ACADEMY; AUTHOR OF "THE LAST ATHENIAN" AND OTHER WORKS.
AUTHORISED TRANSLATION FROM THE SWEDISH
RASMUS B. ANDERSON, LL.D.,
EX-UNITED STATES MINISTER TO DENMARK; AUTHOR OF "NORSE
MYTHOLOGY," "VIKING TALES," ETC.
HON. RASMUS B. ANDERSON, LL.D., Ph.D.,
EDITOR IN CHIEF.
J. W. BUEL, Ph.D.,
PUBLISHED BY THE
LONDON COPENHAGEN STOCKHOLM BERLIN NEW YORK