Death as an Erotic Pleasure Journey
Conceptions attached to the experience of death and an existence after death are rich and varied in the literature that gives us access to the pre-Christian, Nordic mind. If one intends to systematize this material, one will soon realize that the variety in ideas bursts any model that takes as a starting point the existence of a cognitive connection between the various pagan perceptions of death. There is for example no logical coherence between concepts about the human body and soul on one side and the concepts of death, the grave, the death journey and the realms of death on the other side. But despite this variety in ideas that sometimes appear to be combined without any logical connection, certain motifs seem to be detectable.
It is usual to understand Hel as an underground collective realm of the dead for the common man and woman who lived an ordinary life. Snorri gives a gloomy depiction of this place. The death-woman, Hel, is blue-black like a corpse in half the dace, her plate is called hunger and her knife starvation (Gylfaginning, ch.20). We find ourselves on the giant side of the mythological person gallery. There is reason to ask whether Snorri`s depiction of Hel has been influenced by medieval Christian concepts about a place of punishment after death. As we know, the Church borrowed the pagan name for the realm of death to describe Hell (In the old Scandinavian language, Helviti – “Hel`s punishment”). Older sources than Snorri appear to convey very different associations to Hel`s female ruler, as we shall see. The idea of a post-mortal retribution after death was unknown to the pre-Christian religion. It is therefore probable that the medieval Christian concept of Hell has strongly colored Snorri`s presentation of the pagan Hel.
Helgafell [“The Sacred Mountain”]
The concept of Helgafell is only known from the saga literature. The idea of a realm of death within the sacred mountain where all the souls of the clan gathered is a pleasant concept that appears to correspond with the collective mentality that we usually apply to the clan society. It is the fellowship around the fire and the social interaction with other clan members that is emphasize in the Helgafell-concept. The expression deyja i fjall – “to die in the mountain” was an expression used in everyday language in order to say “to die”. This concept of the sacred mountain was probably quite widespread during the pagan era.
Strongly in contrast to Hel- and Helgafell- concepts is the aristocratic Valhalla-concept. This realm of death is named after the famous hall of Odin where the table, the chalice and the joy of battle awaits the dead warrior. Valhalla seems to embrace the worldview of a warrior aristocracy and gives the impression of an ideal masculine post-mortal existence. The existence in Valhalla is temporary, while awaiting the final battle of Ragnarok.
On the basis of the simple death-typology drawn here, it seems that it is a misleading to present Hel, Helgafell and Valhalla as alternative post-mortal possibilities attached to the individual and its deeds judged ethically, just as Valhalla is not an individual reward for a “proper” life career, is Hel not a punishment for a less glorious life.
Death as an Erotic Experience
“The Goddess of Flame [Loga Dís] hoisted the high-born [the king] into the air by the aid of a golden necklace [Freya`s necklace], he [the king] who by Taur was to tame the Cool Horse of Hagbard [death].”
We will now leave the death-realm-typology and turn to the sources that describe a type of death experience that has been given little space in the literature on this subject – namely death as an erotic passion.
Both from the Edda- the Skaldic – and the saga- literature there are examples of death presented as an erotic union between the dead/dying and a representative for the realm of death, usually Hel or Ran. The death experience could actually be described as a death-wedding, it is said that the dying is climbing into Ran`s bed, that he is embraced by the death-woman and such like.
Why this complex of ideas usually is ignored when the Norse concepts of death is presented, can have several reasons. One explanation could be that most have regarded the connection between death and sex as a literary topos without basis in genuine pre-Christian conceptions about death. Another reason can be that the idea of a death-wedding seems macabre from the point of view of our contemporary culture.
My work with the sources on Norse kingship ideology has strengthened my impression that there is a genuine pagan conception at the basis of the combination death and sex. From analysis of the hieros gamos myth (the sacred marriage), it becomes clear that the combination wedding and death are two mythical motifs that together create the basic pillar of Norse kingship ideology.
Skírnismál, which exemplify the myth about a wedding between the god and the giantess, may be seen as an image of the Nordic king`s wedding and consecration as king. The ritual is based on the ancestral myth of the royal clan descending from such a marriage between god and giantess. In the myth we find a clear combination between wedding and death. In the saga Ynglingatal, the combination wedding and death is repeated over and over. In that poem, the poet describes death three times as a sexual encounter between the king and Hel, the queen of the dead. In stanza 7a, king Dyggvi`s death is described as follows: “I do not deny that Hel is taking lustful pleasure in the corpse of Dyggvi”.
In st.7b we read: “And Loki`s daughter (Hel) has seduced the ruler of the people of Yng” (i.e. he has died).
In stanza 32 we read again: “And Loki`s daughter (Hel) invited the king, the third in the row, to meet for lovemaking from the world of the living.”
This Viking Age presentation of Hel as an seductive lover is in sharp contrast to medieval Snorri`s dark description, which must have be strongly influenced by Christian concepts.
In Thorbjorn Brúnason`s ransom song from the early 11th century, we find that epli Heljar – “Hel`s apples” – is a kenning for death. The kenning alludes to Idunn`s apples. The apples were ancient symbols of lovemaking.
In the Edda poem Baldr`s draumar, (or Vegtamskvida), Hel is presented as a hall decorated and well furnished for a party awaiting the arrival of Baldr to the realm of death. This gives the image of a rich húsfru [lady of the house]`s hall who takes good care of her realm, and has not a trace of Snorri`s tale of hunger and misery.
Towards the end of the 900`s, the Icelandic poet Tindr Hallkelsson, described Hel (death) with the kenning “the bendable branches of Gerd`s shoulders”, that is, as Gerd`s (=Hel`s) arms. The hint to a woman`s arms is always a hint to the lover`s embrace and has erotic overtones. Moreover, in the same stanza, Hel is preparing a bed for the earl who was fighting on the battle-field.
With these examples from poetry, we have probably moved a step closer to the Viking Age concepts of Hel as an erotically attractive entity, and it is easier to grasp the image of death as a loving union between the dying and the mistress of the death-realm. This seems to be connected to death on the battle-field or at sea. It is possible that the valkyria who takes the dead to Valhall were part of the same motif, as the heroes of the Edda are married to their valkyrias. In a strofe from Hofgarda-Refr Gestsson the idea of death in battle as an erotic alliance is described: “The generous warrior climbed the golden bed of the woman, the warrior showed great virility.”
Death on the sea can also be described as a sexual union between the dying and the nine daughters of Ran. In Flateyjarbók we hear that a crew that struggle to survive in a tempest are being tried seduced by the daughters of Ran: “Ran`s daughters tried the men, inviting them to their embrace.”
In Fridtjiof saga hin frækni, chapter 6, death is described as climbing the bed of Ran: “Now I shall soon climb the bed of Ran” (I am going to die soon). In the next verse, the thoughts of the poet goes to his girlfriend waiting at home: “and then another shall have Ingibjørg”.
In Sonatorrek 10, the poet Egill Skallgrimsson describes his grief after the death of his son Bodvar. His life has been radically changed. He described his son`s death journey as “the path of lust”.
The expression of Skaldic poetry “to climb Ran`s bed” is equivalent of losing life at sea.
We shall move to the heroic poetry, to the couple Helgi (a king) and Sigrun (his valkyria wife) in Helgakvida Hundingsbani II (Poetic Edda). After Helgi`s death, a slave woman walks past his burial mound one evening, and to her surprise she can see Helgi arrive to his own burial mound with a large gathering, (stanza 40). The slave woman tells her mistress, Sigrun, (who is a valkyria) who meets her dead husband within the mound, st.46:
“Now the bride has come into the mound
The high goddesses [lofda dísir] have come to us.”
Then we are told that “Sigrún made the bed ready in the mound.”
In Sigurdarkvida en skamma (Poetic Edda), Brynhild (a valkyria) orders her own body to be burned with her husband Sigurd after she has killed herself, in st.68 she compares their union on the funeral pyre with the time they were together as husband and wife. In Helreid Brynhilds, she goes after Sigurd into Hel and decides that they shall live together forever.
 Steinsland has written: ”Now a woman has come into the mound, to the dead husband the wife has come.” This is in my opinion to paraphrase the verse and I have made a more literal translation, translating brúd with “bride” and lofda dísir directly with high goddesses rather than the paraphrased “wife”. Maria Kvilhaug