2.7 Summary of the Germanic Afterlife

The most striking evidence of the Germanic heathen's sense of an Afterlife is also the least surprising since it directly reflects the Afterlife concepts of the pre-Hellenistic Greeks, Jews, Balts, Slavs, and Celts to a large degree: life after death is essentially a continuation of life in the grave. Life within the grave could be tedious, boring, tiring, cold, social and lonely. The comforts of home were to be provided by the family with the collection of grave goods left with the body or the ashes/ bones of cremation and through the periodic offerings left for the venerated dead in exchange the one skill the dead were known to possess in abundance: protection. The dead could protect the home and familial lands from invasion by ill-luck, ill-health and by men ill-disposed towards the family.

Having one's dead in the ground offered the odal-lands protection from above by the living and from below by the dead.

Ceremonial offerings, minne-feasts or minne-ales, in some regions, at least in Sweden, were offered to the dead at prescribed intervals after death: at 30 days, 60 days, and either 90 days or 6 months (depending on the regional variations)and then yearly after that. Veneration of the dead as an important and primary part of the heathen Germanic worldview and among various other cultures living in the northern temperate zone contemporary to the Norse.

The gravemound remained the standard concept of a heathen Afterlife in spite of the apparent confusing array of destinations after death described by modern authors (as opposed to researchers). There appears to be little or no evidence that the soul was ever conceptually viewed as being separable from the body, i.e. dualistic, but could be sent on special errands from its home in the body always to return to its corpse after the task was accomplished. Although this extending of the soul out into the world shows up most commonly in later folklore, there are indications in a few sagas that at least some during the heathen period accepted the idea of what is now called astral projection. There is speculation that the concept may have been brought into through contact with shamanistic tribes such as the Samí, possibly the early Finnish, and some of the tribes along the Volga. This borderzone influence has been discussed by Uno Holmberg in the earlier part of the last century and lately by Thomas Dubois.

Hel appears to have been a communal extension of the gravemound concept and Valhalla, a poetic variation which may in reality have had few believers (if any). Archaeological studies of graves near battlefields show that buried dead were outfitted in exactly the same manner as burials near community sites. Were there an actual difference in Afterlife concepts between village dwellers and warrior bands, one would expect differences in burials. The important point consistantly reinforced in later Norse literature and medieval folklore that it was important to get the dead comfortably into the grave and hopefully keep them there. Those who died away from home presented a special problem because the family was deprived of one of its own which would serve to protect the family lands and because the family could not be sure that the dead was properly interred. A Norse limbo for the drowned was envisioned, 'the nets of Rán,' and conceptually Valhalla may have served similarly to allay some of those fears as well.

Although reincarnation is often discussed in modern times as being closely bound to to earlier heathen beliefs any evidence for metempsychosis available comes directly from early Christians. There is absolutely no archaeological evidence of such a belief. The idea of 'passing on certain qualities' from one generation to the next, however, did exist and was in fact quite common. Unfortunately, modern translators insist on using the terms 'reincarnation' or 'born again' when it would be more apropos to use 'post-humously inherited' or 'passed X on.' Similar beliefs are seen in neighboring regions as well.

The gravemound or minor variations of the concept seems to have been the only verifiable Afterlife destination.

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