Folkmother Else Christensen 1913 - 2005
Why does the idea of life after death have such an appeal? How come that the notion of a 'heaven' is so important that this factor alone is one of the main reasons so many of our kinfolk cling to Christianity? We have no proof at all that such a 'place' exists; the stories about people who 'have come back from the dead' do not constitute any proper evidence, simply because they did not die, they were only on the threshold of death but did not 'step over'.
One answer is obvious; to each person he is the most important individual on earth; the survival instinct, self-preservation, is the strongest of all our urges. It would therefore be human to wish that this important person - marvelous me - should, at least in part, be preserved somewhere and not altogether disappear from the face of earth.
Another answer would be that many people live rather miserable lives; maybe for some it is because they have not been taught to honor the proper values; for others they may have been born into slavery or other wretched circumstances they cannot change by themselves. For both it is understandable they dream of a better life somewhere, sometime, and if it is impossible in this life they invent a next existence where all things wonderful will happen.
We cannot blame people for such longings; maybe this hope of some day balancing the scales is the only thing that keeps them going. A spiritually empty life or physical distress are powerful motivations for believing in a 'Fantasy Island'; but it is not factual.
Our forefathers had a different outlook. First of all, they believed in Destiny. That means that you live through the life the Norns have planned for you; but the concept is not fatalistic, for you are free to work with or against your destiny. If you follow your destined course in life, you are listening to your instincts, and events will form a natural pattern. You may die young, face dangers or go through hardships, or you may be destined to raise a fine family; whatever it is, you are living in harmony with the Gods. Contrariwise, you may disregard what your instincts tell you; you may take the easy way out, be dishonest with your self and others, 'sell out' - and your life will be wasted, you will leave nothing of value behind.
In 'Religious Attitudes of the Indo-Europeans', Prof. Hans Gunther states that "Indo- European religiosity is of this world and this fact determines its essential forms of expressions." And that includes the ideas about death and immortality.
To our Nordic forefathers death was as natural as birth. We dealt with this particular aspect in "The Odinist" periodical #53; it is part of the life cycle and nobody expected it to be any different. The sagas tell that those who died a natural death went to the Kingdom of the Dead, presided over by the daughter of Loki, by name Hel. It was not a place of punishment; one could almost be tempted to call it a storehouse. Our forefathers were not as scientifically informed as we are; yet they were aware that matter does not disappear, it only changes form, so in their simple ways they realized that the extinguished life-forces of the deceased had to be retained somewhere, and they devised the Kingdom of Hel. At the battle of Ragnarok the souls of the dead would be released; for which purpose is not quite clear but apparently to influence the outcome of the debacle. However, the sagas tell that Baldur who was killed by his twin brother Hodur through the treachery of Loki, come 'up' from Hel, as these two sons of Wotan are destined to be part of the next group of Gods that will help mankind keep order in the new and better world that will arise after the Big Battle. In this way will arise after the Big Battle. In this way continuity between past and future is secured, as those gods would form the links in the chain connecting the old with the new.
That the brave warriors who fell on the battlefields were picked up by the Battle Maidens, the V alkyries, and taken to Valhalla where they were kept in training for the Day of Ragnarok, shows the importance put on fighting the evil forces. Our forefathers were well aware that it would take every ounce of their strength and every bit of help was needed. This is emphasized by the fact that keeping the old warriors fit for the fight was necessary for the success of the future. It is not said directly, but it is certainly indicated that every able warrior will be required to win the battle and it is well known that to their ever-lasting glory the old gods and many men will fall in the war to ensure that future generations will enjoy living in the new world.
Immortality to our forefathers was, therefore not a personal affair but rather a tribal matter; if one gave one's life for the good of future generations and died gloriously defending good and fighting evil, what more could a person ask? This sentiment is expressed beautifully by Macauley thus: "And how can man die better than fighting fearful odds, for the ashes of his fathers and the temples of his Gods?"
The life of the individual was of course important to him, and nobody gave up his life needlessly and without letting it count; but it was certainly better to die fighting for the good of the tribe than to live ignominiously. A modern version of this heroic stand is seen in the dedication of the Kamikazi pilots of WWII who ignored their own safety for what they saw as the honor of their race and country. It was thus not the individual that was the most important but the protection and continuation of the tribe.
The only immortality man could obtain was through his descendants and through his deeds and accomplishments while living. The one important thing that remained after death was the name left behind. This sentiment is shown in the oft-quoted verse from Havamal: "Cattle die, and kinsmen die, and so one dies oneself; one thing that will never die is the fame of a good man's deeds."
Since the Christians began their preaching among the slaves of the Roman Empire, most of whom lived in misery, the only way they could get these people interested in their new religion was to promise a better life. As they could not possibly with any measure of credibility promise better conditions in this life, there had to be another place and time when all these wonderful things would happen. Obviously this had to be in a next existence, and where else but in heaven?
You might ask what's the difference then between Valhalla and Heaven? The obvious difference is that the warriors in Valhalla fighting together with the Gods at Ragnarok are doing so in the service of the Folk - to create a better world. The Christian idea of the joys of heaven are for the benefit of the individual; he will hear the harps play, he is to sit at the left hand of God, clad in his white sheets, etc. etc. ; there is no thought of helping others, it is a very limited, personal purpose. To our forefathers life as well as death were tribal matters.
The Communists later were much in the same situation as the Christians. After the Industrial Revolution the workers of the world were living miserable lives - long hours, poor working conditions, low pay. To get the wretched people interested in their political ideas the Marxists, too, had to invent their pie-in-the-sky, although after another pattern; but it was essentially the same thing - promises for the benefit of the individual. But we might in all honesty note that many, if not most, of the early Communists truly believed in their fantasy and willingly gave to the party what little they had. And we should be generous and say that probably also many Christians believe in their imagery although they are made to pay for their salvation.
Most Wotanists believe we have only one life to live and that it matters not how long this life is but how we live it. It is quality, not quantity that counts. We are caretakers of the present and form the links that connect the past to the future. In the words of one of our distinguished kinsmen: "Keep pure your blood. It is not only yours, it comes from far away, it flows far away. It is freighted with a thousand ancestors and the entire future flows within it. Keep pure the dress of your immortality!"
(From Elsie Christensen's periodical "The Odinist" 1982, issue #66)