Valhalla is a place on earth
I recently came to the realisation that Valhalla is an actual place, and you can go and visit it next time you are in London.
Before you start wondering, I have not become a convert to Ásatrú or any of the other reconstructed neo-pagan religions. I’ve nothing against them -you may as well worship the entities after whom the days of the week are named if that’s what floats your (long) boat- but it's not for me. This was more of an epiphany arising from a sudden understanding of the linguistic roots of the concept, roots that -just about- reach down to touch even the modern English we speak today.
I'm nearing the end (finally) of writing the viking one I've been trying to get round to for about 20 years now and as part of the research for it I re-opened my Old Norse text books from college. As tends to happen, I soon got lost down the rabbit holes and burrows that riddle the mounds of linguistic and semantic history. It was during that journey that this revelation occurred to me.
Not for the first time, I was impressed by the fact that so often much meaning is lost in translation. At times the literal translation of one word in one language when brought to another tongue often fails to bring with it all of the semantic trappings and possible meaning associated with that word. We often marvel at the fact that for the Chinese, the same word can have many different meanings depending on tone. However words in English can have a variety of meaning depending on social, cultural and historical context.
Sometimes, the real meaning of something can he hiding in plain sight.
The concept of Valhalla is familiar to us through a range of cultural references. From Wagnerian opera to Led Zeppelin’s “Immigrant song”, The Mighty Thor (comics and Brannagh’s movie) to Conan the Barbarian (the Schwarzenegger version), the idea of the viking heaven where the dead can fight all day and drink all night has somehow been ingrained in our culture. I think its fair to say that the predominate impression of the place right from Götterdämmerung to the the excesses of 1980s heavy metal songs is pompous, male dominated and grim (pun intended).
Personally, I'm not sure this is true to what the heathen Norse actually believed. It's not something that I detected much of in the surviving Old Norse texts with their wry black humour and almost agnostic religious attitude. The reality of what Valhalla actually was (and still is) is likely to be far from the shield roofed golden Hall of Odinn described in the poetry.
On that note, perhaps it's worth having a quick diversion of just what the poets version of Valhalla was. In various medieval sources (which we must remember were written in the Christian era) Valhalla is depicted as having there are 540 doors, each one so wide that 800 warriors can walk through them side by side. The roof is covered with golden shields and the walls around Valhalla are made from wooden spear shafts. The spear/war-themed decor scheme continues inside, where spear-shafts are used for rafters, the roof is thatched with shields, coats of mail are strewn over its benches. For final touches a wolf hangs in front of its west doors, and, like an military helicopter, an eagle hovers above it. The dead who go there feast on a magic pig, Saehrimnir, while up on the roof a magic goat named Heidrun supplies endless mead instead of milk. It's at this point most modern readers would start to think "Really? A magic goat with milk flowing from it's teats? They believed this?"
My suspicion is they didn't. At least no more that a modern day believer might expect a set of pearly gates waiting for them at the entrance to the afterlife.
If anything, from the literature they have passed down to us, the Norse people were as vague on the afterlife as the famous Anglo-Saxon pagan priest recorded by Bede who advised his King to adopt the new Christian faith because he had no idea what happened either before birth or after death. There are some poetic references to Valhalla but it seems like to the average viking, when we die we all either go under a mountain or to Hell (literally: to the Norse Hell was the name of the Queen of the dead). An enormously practical people, what seems to have concerned the Norse most about what happens after they died was the one single thing that you can be sure will survive after you are gone: Your reputation. It was not just the everyday vikings who worried about it either, in the Havamal, purportedly Odinn himself states that you will die, your kinsmen will die and all your wealth and possessions will dissipate, but there is one thing that will not die and it is whatever fame you manage to earn during your life. Reputation and glory were the only sure form of immortality that you could count on.
I believe it was the thought of what people would say about them when they were dead that spurred those ancient raiders up the beach with practically suicidal bravery, not a firm belief that their spirits would actually live on after their physical death in a golden battle hall. It was a sentiment that was not limited to the Vikings alone. Beowulf is obsessed with building his reputation and indeed this is his primary motivation for all his deeds throughout the poem.
It should be no surprise that the title “Valhalla” is a mistranslation. The Old Norse name for the place is Valhöll which is usually translated as "hall of the slain". Höll of course means “hall” but translating “Val” as “slain”, while accurate, does not completely convey all of the meaning. The poets sang that the way to get to Valhalla was to be picked up from the battlefield and brought there by a Valkyrie -a “chooser of the slain” and the same word Val-or to give it it’s nominative form “Valr”- appears here also. These were not just any old dead bodies. The Norse had many names for the dead and “Valr” was a particularly special type of corpse. It was one that belonged to someone who died displaying impressive bravery, i.e. notable valour.
And there you have it: The word survived into the modern era. Valour - the modern English form of the same word - may be a slightly archaic term for bravery today, but its is still understood. It still conveys a meaning that portrays a certain special type of courage, one that is unselfish, noble and also with a certain disregard for self preservation. Famously it appears in one place of shared cultural significance: The inscription on the Victoria Cross reads simply “For Valour”.
Now we’re finally getting to the point. The VC is the highest military decoration awarded for valour to members of the armed forces of various Commonwealth countries and former British Empire territories. The courage required to earn one is considerable and it carries the unique constraint that the associated deeds must be carried out quite literally “in the face of the enemy”. It is granted for exploits in war and other combat situations that are both up close and personal and often suicidal. Over a quarter of the VCs awarded during World War One were posthumous. To win one by your deeds ensures a record of your actions will live on beyond your lifetime, and most people will speak only great things of you, regardless of what you were actually like in life.
The largest collection of Victoria crosses can be found in the Imperial War Museum in London. Last time I was there it was upstairs and in a long gallery - a hall- to the left of the staircase. It is this place, I believe, that is the closest thing to Valhalla we have in modern society. It is, quite literally a Hall of Valour: The Valr Hall. It is not a shining, golden hall, with rafters made from spears and five hundred and forty doors. It’s a very quiet, dark room with ranks of brightly lit display cases in which the bronze crosses gleam alongside the labels that tell the tales of how they were achieved. In that respect it is probably closer, in my opinion, to what the everyday viking thought of when he turned his mind to death and Valhalla.
Well, half of them, anyway. The other thing I was reminded of during this recent bout of research was that in the Norse tradition while the ordinary dead went to Hell, only half of the glorious dead went to Valhalla. The other half, due to some unexplained sorting rules, went to a field ruled over by the Goddess Freyja: Fólkvangr. For some reason this does not seem to have survived into our modern conscious. No heavy metal or operatic arias evoke Fólkvangr, nor is it mentioned in most historical fiction, though perhaps that is unsurprising. Everlasting feasting and fighting holds more dramatic potential than an eternity of, well, standing in a field.
What the meaning behind this other viking heaven could be I will leave for someone else to work out.