Who Goes to Valhalla? Or, Odin is a God of War AND Wisdom, not War Alone

It seems to me that every Heathen group eventually has a conversation about who is worthy to go to Valhalla. Someone inevitably insists that only warriors who fall in battle can enter Valhalla, and they decide it’s disrespectful to believe otherwise.

Perhaps the reason that conversation comes up so frequently is that warriors falling in battle and ending up in Valhalla is frequently mentioned by the lore left to us. Once a warrior falls in battle, Freya and Odin split the fallen between them.

There are a couple of considerations the people who posit the argument that Odin only accepts fallen warriors into Valhalla fail to make.

The first of those is that the lore we have available to us in the Eddas and Sagas contain myths that have been rewritten in the hands of Christian writers. It is very possible that the reason Snorri mentioned Valhalla as the heaven for those who die in battle was due to the Christian ideal of fighting for the kingdom of god, which was a prevalent ideal at the time he recorded the stories. Snorri may have simply excluded information from the Eddas because he was writing for a Christian audience – we have no way of knowing with any certainty that Valhalla was restricted to only warriors who fell in battle.

The second of those considerations is that Odin is a god of war and wisdom. It is hard to imagine a god of both qualities stacking his army with a single type of soldier. The best armies, in the human world, are comprised of a vast array of professionals alongside combatants. In American armies, there are professionals that focus on mechanics, engineering, technology, scientific research, historical research, and the list continues. Not everyone who enlists in the military will face combat – there are plenty of units that are noncombatant. That does not mean they are irrelevant to the functioning of the military; it just means they are best suited to working behind the front lines. If human intelligence has taught us that the best militaries are comprised of multiple units with a great number of professionals, who are we to say that Odin would only take combatants in Valhalla?

To try and determine who Odin would or would not take is arrogance at its finest. It’s like people forget, when arguing anything slightly theological, that we are not gods and we cannot speak for them. The only one capable of deciding who can be accepted into Valhalla is Odin himself.

To those who believe only warriors can enter those halls, I wonder what would happen if they entered the hall and found themselves face-to-face with noncombatants. At that point, would the fighters find themselves angry with Odin for daring to accept noncombatants into his hall?  Isn’t this far more disrespectful than the people who believe that Odin can and will accept whoever he wants?

I think there are questions that people fail to ask themselves, and they get caught up in Odin’s aspect as a deity of war and all too often forget that he is also a deity of wisdom. There isn’t a single military on earth comprised of just fighters. Why in the nine realms would Odin exhibit less wisdom than humanity in putting together his own?

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10 thoughts on “Who Goes to Valhalla? Or, Odin is a God of War AND Wisdom, not War Alone”

  1. I find it most likely that Valhalla originates as a kenning. Place of the Fallen. As in those who’se corpses stay on the battlefield or get shoved in a mass grave. Because taking them home and placing them in the communal/familly tomb is impossible at that point. What’s more, in the only describtion we have, its a place based purely on killing and drinking in an cycle, ended only by defeat in a massive curbstomp battle.
    I don’t think any other then a specific type of warrior would find this desirable at all.

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    1. Viewing it as a kenning isn’t a route I’ve seen before, so that’s intriguing in and of itself. It raises interesting questions about whether Valhalla could be another name for a mass grave on a battlefield as well as a physical afterlife.

      As to the description of killing and drinking in a daily cycle – that, again, is an image that comes to us through the lens of Christian writers. There is no actual way to discern the truth about an afterlife without experiencing death, and it could very well be that the image we have of Valhalla is due to Snorri’s literary genius. He capitalized on the ideals of the day to keep the stories alive – it’s impossible to really say where the Christian and Heathen lines really diverge in the lore. That’s why I think it’s incredibly important for people to scrutinize the lore we have rather than blindly adhere to information that is inherently circumspect at best.

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      1. It was something I read a long time ago back in my baby-heathen days, no idea where I’m afraid. But it makes a lot of sense to me. The name means ”place of those killed in combat”, it is ONLY attested in later poetry, with no Obvious acrcheological or indirect references elsewhere. And the notion as presented seems odd to me. Life was (and should be) lived in a certain context, with your tribe/familly/sibbe honor, reputation and prosperity to protect and improve. A death that permanently seperates you from your kin seems less like a reward and more like a pity-prize to me. Besides, groups like Viking-groups or seafarers in general oftend end up with their own terms and concepts. Understood to be ”poetic” in a sense by them all.

        I agree that the Lore needs to be understood in context, but I guess I come to very different conclusions (Valhalla is not a relevant thing) then you do (Valhalla is a desirable place for all those Wodan chooses). I consider my conclusion to be more consistent with what little we know about both the Lore and its historical context, and the reality we live in. But that might be because it is my conclusion. And I am obviously that one person who is subjectivly and objectivly correct 😉

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      2. I’m actually a lot less concerned about what happens after I die than about how I live the life I have now. I just get annoyed when people start arguing about who is going where, as if any of us can ever truly know what happens after death.

        As far as I’m concerned, the only ones that I believe can give us insight into the afterlife are the gods themselves and, potentially, those who practice the necromantic arts.

        I don’t understand why people want to fight about it when it is pretty obvious (to me, at least) that none of us (humans) are going to be able to speak with any sort of authority on the matter.

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      3. Meh. Life before death is more relevant to be sure. But it is very harmfull to us as a whole when people distort what little we can consistently point toward in order to justify some sort of Macho fantasy scenario. For me it is more about people taking their own idea’s seriously and being willing and able to actually explain why they believe what they believe.

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      4. Yeah, I can understand that. It seems most people walk around with beliefs they’ve never explored that they hold simply because “that’s what the book says” or “that’s what my parents told me.” The lack of critical thinking in the world is disheartening.

        I think a lot of it comes down to people wanting to feel secure, so they attach themselves to ideas that feel good to them and defend them without analyzing them properly. For a lot of people, Valhalla is a fantasy that allows them to feel secure in their faith. It’s when they start bombarding others with the beliefs they hold that they’ve never questioned and insisting that those beliefs are unequivocally correct that I start to take issue with them. People can believe whatever they want, but I will take issue with beliefs that are harmful/detrimental to others.

        Insisting that Valhalla is a place only for soldiers who die in combat is harmful when posited towards someone who has been fighting a terminal illness and believes that their fight makes them worthy of Valhalla. What right does the first person have to steal away the dreams of the second? To posit exclusivity is cruelty at its finest, and it isn’t a quality I tolerate well.

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      5. What merit is it to have a faith that bends around what makes people feel good though? Reality is not designed to be pleasurable, and one of the great things about Heathenry is that it accepts this. it doesn’t try to make the suffering seem less real or relevant, nor does it blame any one factor for it. Reality is gritty and our Heathenry should not be afraid to reflect and accept that for it to be of value beyond escapism and entertainment.

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      6. I agree with you, for the most part. However, beliefs about the afterlife – things literally that happen after death – have no real bearing on the physical life we all possess. If someone decides to dedicate themselves to Odin because that’s the road to Valhalla, they are acting from a Christian model that they have failed to leave behind. To be obsessed with the afterlife is to miss the entire point of adhering to a life-affirming faith.

        Many people who come to Pagan paths, including Heathenry, never shake the Christian model they grow up surrounded by. It takes time and effort to re-frame a mind programmed to monotheistic thinking into a mind designed to hold polytheistic concepts. Most people aren’t even aware that they need to do this reprogramming, so it isn’t really surprising that people adhere to the concepts that seem most familiar to them.

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      7. I will have to disagree. A professed afterlife belief is something that excists in a vacume. The whole Valhalla-bound stuff is part of a larger tendency. One of romanticism and escapeism. Those aspects are destructive to our reputation as a worldview that is worthy of being taken seriously, and it is destructive to those that have the view and those influenced by them because it harms their chances of seeing the value of actual Heathenry. Also, aiming for (a misconception and inflated notion of) Valhalla, influences your life choices and your priority’s. It makes one more likely to brag about acts of violence (real or imagined) then to work toward the good of their community. I understand your live and let live approach, but I don’t think we have that luxery. It is important to encourage eachother and ourselves to understand why we believe what we believe, and what effects those beliefs will have on our lives and that of others.

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      8. I can see where you’re coming from. I’ve always been a proponent of live and let live as long as the person in question doesn’t harm me or my family or friends. I don’t look at every Heathen out there and say, hey, we share a religion, now we’re family.

        In terms of the Heathen worldview being taken seriously, I have the same response to that as I always have in similar situations. People around me take me serious because I’m serious. Complaining about how others don’t take me serious is a waste of time because it raises the idea in people’s head that there are reasons to not take me seriously.

        As for Heathenry as a whole, there are far bigger problems to deal with than those who want to talk about Valhalla. Like the people who use Heathenry as a cover for white supremacy and the misuse of religious symbols for racism and hatred. And yes, those problems definitely combine in some ways because people have a deep-seated fear of losing control. The less control a person feels they have, the more violent they become. So that could easily combine to produce a toxic set of factors in a single individual.

        Conversely, people who are assured that they are going to Valhalla because of their warrior ethic – and thus, the ones who feel most in control of their lives – are far less likely to engage in white supremacist and racist activities and far less likely to spread hatred.

        Every belief is a double-edged sword. Desperation to get into Valhalla to prove manhood can result in violence and extreme racial prejudice. Assurance of getting into Vahalla can result in greater tolerance for all people and less overall violence as a result.

        As with most things with the Norse gods, the pursuit of Valhalla is a double-edged sword.

        Also, I don’t view “live and let live” as a luxury but as a necessity for humanity to coexist in a manner that doesn’t devolve to genocide. To relinquish the ideal of “live and let live” is, in some manner, to embrace the ideal of “live and let live but only if certain arbitrary conditions are met,” which, from my perspective, is patently ridiculous.

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