by William Reaves, edited by Úlfgrim Vílmeiðson
Copyright © William Reaves
Gisle's Saga (ch. 24) mentions the custom of binding Hel-shoes on the feet of the dead. Warriors in whom there is no doubt that Valhal was their final destination received Hel-shoes like all the 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," on the Hel-ways.
When Hermod journeyed 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 rode across the same bridge. These dead men did not come separately or a few at a time, but in large groups called fylki, an expression which, in the Icelandic literature denotes larger or smaller divisions of an army. This indicates with sufficent clearness that the dead men here in question are men who have fallen on the field of battle and are on their way to Hel, in company with his fallen brothers-in-arms. This account presupposes that men fallen by the sword, first ride to the lower world, else we would not find fylkis on a Hel-way crossing the subterranean bridge into the same realm as Balder and Nanna after death.
There are still two poems extant from the heathen time which describe the reception of sword-fallen kings into 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 a mighty din on their approach, as if the foundations of Asgard trembled. All the benches of Valhal quake. The skald makes Bragi say that from the din and the 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 (the Trembling Way). Thus Bragi's words show that it is Bifrost from which the noise is heard when Erik and his men ride up to Valhal.
If the Bifrost bridge should break under the weight of its riders, as will happen in the course of time, then their horses would have to "swim" in the sea of air (Bilraust brotnar, er their a bru fara, ok svima i modo marir, Fafnismal 15; compare a strophe of Kormak, Kormak's saga, p. 259, where the atmosphere is called the fjord of the gods, Dia fjördr). 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 this bridge "every day" (Grimnismal 29, 30; Gylfaginning). The bridge does not lead to Midgard. It stood outside and below the edge of the earth's crust both in the north and the south. In the south it descends to Urd's well and to the thingstead of the gods in the lower world. To get to the southern end of Bifrost, Erik and his men must have journeyed to Hel, across gjoll, and past the thingstead of the gods near Urd's well.
In the grand poem Hakonarmal, Eyvind Skaldaspiller makes Odin send the valkyries Gandul and Skagul "to chose kings of Ingvi's race, to come to Odin and abide in Valhal." Here we get definite information in regard to which way the valkyries journey between Asgard and Midgard.
"We two (Gandul and Skogul) shall now," said the mighty Skogul, "ride over green realms of the gods in order to say to Odin that a great king is coming to see him."
The fields through which the road goes, and which are beaten by the hooves of the horses are "green realms of the gods, "græna heima goda." With these realms, Eyvind has not meant the blue ether. He distinquishes between blue and green. The sea he calls blue (blámær, see Heimskringla). What he states, and to which we must confine ourselves, is that according to his concept of the cosmology and that of his heathen fellow-believers, there were green realms, inhabited by divinities, on the route that the Valkyries took when they rode back to Valhal from a battlefield in Midgard. But since Valkyries and the elect ride on Bifrost up to Valhal, the "green realms" through which they pass are therefore the realms of the lower world.
Among the realms or "worlds" which constitute the mythological universe, the realms of bliss (Urd and Mimir's domain) in the lower world are those which might particularily be characterized as green. Their groves and blooming meadows are never thouched by frost or decay, 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 "gròni godes wang," green field of the gods. That the green realms of the lower world are called realms of the gods is also proper for they contain many beings of higher or lower divine rank. There dwells the divine mother Night, worshipped by the Teutons; there Thor's mother and her brother are fostered; there Balder, Nanna, and Hodr are to dwell until Ragnarok; there Delling, Billing, Rind, Dag, Mani, and Sol, as well as all the clan of artists gathered around Mimir (led by Sindri), they who forge living beings, vegetation, and ornaments, have their halls. When Gandul and Skogul at the head of sword-fallen men "ride over the green relams of the gods," this agrees with the statement in the myth about Hermod's journey to Hel, that "five fylkis" of dead-men rode over the subterranean gold-bridge.
The mythic tradition is also supported by linguistic usage which, in such phrases as "berja i Hel," "drepa i Hel," drepa til Heljar," færa til Heljar," indicate that those fallen by the sword also descend to the realm of the dead. Of one of Atli's brothers who fell by Gudrun's sword, it is said "i helju hon þann hafði", (Atlamal 51). In the same poem, strophe 43, one of the Niflungs says of a sword-fallen foe that they had him "lamdan til heljar," beaten to Hel.
In the 45th chapter of Egil's Saga we read how Egil saved himself from men whom Erik Blood-axe sent in pursuit of him to Saud Isle. While they searched for him, he stole into the place where the boat lay in which those in pursuit had rowed across. Three warriors guarded the boat. Egil succeeded in surprising them, giving one his death-blow before he was able to defend himself. The second fell in a duel on the beach. The third fell after an exchange of blows. The saga preserves a strophe in which Egil mentions this exploit to his brother and his friend, whom he meets after his flight from Saud Isle. There he says:
"Three... will return late; they have gone to Hel, to Hel's high hall," "til hásalar Heljar helgengnir."
The fallen men 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 combat. According to the conception of the modern mythological text-books, these sword-slain men should have been conducted by Valkyries through the air to Valhal. But the skald Egil, who was a heathen born about the year 904, and who was a contemporary of the sons of Harald Fairhair, must have known the mythological views of his fellow-heathens 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 it as both possible and correct. In the ancient heathen records there is not a single passage in conflict with Egil's idea; they all, on the contrary, fully agree with his words, and that this harmony continues in the reports of the first Christian centuires in regard to this subject.
As Odin and Freyja have the right of choosing on the battlefield, the Valkyries have Asgard as their home. There they bring mead-horns to the Aesir and the Einherjes, when they do not ride on All-father's errands (Voluspa, 31; Grimnismal, 36; Eiriksmal, 1; Ulf Uggeson, Skaldskaparsmal, 238). But the third of the norns, Skuld, is the chief in this group (Volupsa 31) and, they forever remain in the most intimate association with Urd and the lower world. The memory of Valkyries, subordinate to the goddess of death and fate (Hel-Urd), and belonging with her to the class of Norns, continued to flourish in Christian times both among Anglo-Saxons and Scandinavians. Among the former välcyrge, välcyrre (valkyrie) could be used to express the Latin parca, "fate, goddess of fate" (New College Latin-English dictionary, 1966), and in Beowulf occur phrases in which Hild and Gud (the Valkyries Hildr and Gunnr) perform the tasks of Vyrd (Urd). In Atlamal 28, the valkyries are changed to "dead women," inhabitants of the lower world, who come to choose the hero and invite him to their halls. The basis for the transformation is that the Valkyries were not only in Odin's service, but also in that of the lower world goddess, Urd (compare Atlakvida 16, where they are called norns), and that they as psychopomps conducted the chosen heroes to Hel on their way to Asgard.
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