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Old Norse literature about Vikings is filled with famous last stands, audacious last words, death songs and defiance. When men died in battle, it was believed that the war-god Odin gathered chosen slain warriors at his home in Asgard—the dwelling place of the gods in Norse mythology. Odin’s mythical hall, called Valhalla, was a warrior’s paradise built of spear shafts and roofed with shields.
The Vikings' glorious attitude toward death was key to their success on the battlefields of Europe, writes Tom Shippey in Laughing Shall I Die, Lives and Deaths of the Great Vikings. This fatalistic ‘’Viking mindset,’’ he says, was a kind of death cult—a psychological edge that allowed them to fight fearlessly.
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Valhalla: A Warrior’s Paradise
According to Viking mythology, when a warrior fell on the battlefield, he was greeted by a valkyrie—a supernatural, female figure. Valkyries protected some warriors but guided spear points and arrows into the bodies of others. In the Viking mind, battles were determined not by military prowess but through the agency of these fateful women.
Mythical valkyries led slain heroes (the einherjar) from the battlefield to Odin’s magnificent hall. Built of weapons and armor, Valhalla was the promised land of a Viking warrior. The Poetic Edda, a collection of myths and heroic stories written in 13th-century Iceland, depicts Valhalla’s dramatic construction: “spear-shafts the building has for rafters, it’s roofed with shields, mail-coats are strewn on the benches.’’
A wolf hung above Valhalla’s western door, according to writings, and an eagle hovered over the wolf. In her translation of The Poetic Edda, medieval scholar Carolyne Larrington notes that these creatures are ‘’Germanic beasts of battle; their appearance signals that a fight is impending.’’
This impending fight was the cataclysmic battle at Ragnarok, a mythological event the Vikings’ believed would one day occur.
“Ragnarok is like Armageddon, the battle at the end of the world,” Shippey writes. “In it the gods and their human allies will march out to fight against the frost giants and the fire giants, the trolls and the monsters.’’
At Ragnarok, Odin would fight beside his einherjar who advance through Valhalla’s 540 doors. Eight hundred einherjar would exit out of each, prepared to defend Asgard against the encroaching forces of chaos. Odin knows that Ragnarok is going to happen. In Valhalla, his einherjar train for the event by engaging daily battles. As detailed in the Edda, those slain in these battles were soon resurrected. For a Viking warrior, the battles at Valhalla allowed him to continue his earthly career into the afterlife, preparing for the fateful day when he would fight alongside the war-god Odin.
Jackson Crawford, an Old Norse specialist at the University of Colorado, Boulder, describes Ragnarok as being the predetermined death of the gods. To the Vikings, fate was unchangeable and an integral facet of the Norse worldview. ‘’Ragnarok is the gods' equivalent of the ‘scheduled’ death-day that each mortal has,” Crawford says. “If you can only get to the good afterlife by dying in battle, and you're going to die on a particular day no matter what you do on that day, you're going to take any good opportunity to fight.’’
READ MORE: Six Things We Owe to the Vikings
Eric Bloodaxe, Haakon the Good
Not all Viking warriors were granted entrance to the mythical Valhalla, but ancient Norse poems describe heroes who were believed to be bestowed with the honor. Eiríksmál, a poem written around 954, honors the 10th-century Norwegian ruler, Eric Bloodaxe. The poem describes the king’s warlike existence, assaulting the coastlines of Europe—and Odin’s preparation for his arrival in the afterlife. The poem’s verses declare, ‘’What kind of dream is this, that I had thought before daybreak I was preparing Valhalla for a slain army? I awakened the einherjar, asking them to get up to strew the benches and to rinse the drinking cups. I asked the valkyries to bring wine, as if a leader should come.’’
Viking sagas about Haakon the Good, king of Norway from 934 to 961, describe preparations for his entry to Valhalla. In the 990 poem Hákonarmál, the Norse gods Hermod and Bragi ask Odin to welcome Haakon into Valhalla. ‘’Hermod and Bragi said to Odin 'go to meet the monarch because a king is coming here to the hall who is deemed a champion,’” the poem reads. While poems describe Bloodaxe’s and Haakon’s many victories on earth, it was believed their greatest battles would be staged in the afterlife at Ragnarok.
A Great Viking Death
Among Valhalla’s most legendary warriors was Ragnar Lothbrok, a 9th-century Danish Viking hero whose exploits fill pages of Norse chronicles. While historians can’t be sure whether Ragnar existed as an actual man (or men), or was crafted from decades of mythology, Ragnar was celebrated for his bravado—even in the face of agonizing death.
In the 12-century poem The Death Song of Ragnar Lothbrok, readers learn of this Viking’s heroic fate. Ragnar intended to sail for England and swore that he would conquer it with a fleet of just two ships. After a few victories across the island, he was captured by the Northumbrian king Ælla. The king had Ragnar thrown into a snake-pit, hoping he would suffer a slow and painful death.
In this moment of what appeared to be an inevitable defeat, Ragnar composes a death-song about how Valhalla is awaiting his arrival. His final verse ends with the declaration, ‘’laughing shall I die.’’
As Crawford notes, passages like these show how mythology ascribed a fearless mindset to Viking warriors. ‘’The choice isn't between living and dying," he says, "it's between dying badly and dying well on the day that you're going to die anyway.’’