Vikings were famed for their courage, be it bravery in battle or the unflinching approach towards sailing into the unknown. Where did this courage to pursue great and daring achievements come from? What was it that influenced an entire culture to accept death, and in certain cases embrace it?

It’s easy to be impressed  by Viking achievements, especially when considering that they originated from a scarcely populated region. They explored, visited and traded with far-away places, such as the Middle-East and North Africa. They founded Russia and were the first Europeans to discover and sail to North America, hundreds of years prior to Columbus.
Their reputation as warriors was equally admirable, which made the Byzantine Emperor choose Vikings as his elite bodyguard. Vikings besieged and sacked several European cities, and managed to conquer and rule England.  We’re talking about endeavors and expeditions that required huge amounts of guts and the ability to overcome the fear of death….or rather ignore death. How could almost an entire culture be so unconcerned with the prospect of dying?

Norse culture, from which the Vikings were sprung out of, was a fatalist one. They believed that the length of their lives was pre-destined by the Norns – mythological, divine beings who spun a life-thread for each individual. The thread’s length was set and couldn’t be changed, meaning that the exact day and time of your death was pre-destined (but unknown to you). This must have completely eliminated the fear of death, turning it into an unavoidable fact.
Since the time of your death was pre-destined, you might as well pursue riches instead of watch paint dry at home. If it wasn’t your time to go, well then you’d be rich. “Want to sail across that huge body of water, without knowing if there’s land on the other side?” –  “Sure! I’ve got nothing to lose. If I perish, then it’s my fate to die that day anyway.”

Could their fatalistic outlook have been enough to turn Vikings into fearless warriors? Why did they march cheerfully into battle, risking a premature and possibly painful death? The reason is spelled Helheim. If you died from old age, sickness or something else that didn’t involve battle or bravery, you ended up in the dark, boring death realm of Helheim.  It was ruled by Hel, the misshapen daughter of Loke, who sailed around in a ship built from the nails of the dead. Helheim was so bad that the Christians took its name to represent their variant of an abyssal afterlife. It wasn’t exactly the place for a Viking – and they wanted to avoid that to all costs. The question was how to cheat fate and avoid Helheim?

Luckily for the Vikings, who had more opportunities to die a violent, courageous death than the regular Norse farmer, there was a way of avoiding the eternal apathy of Helheim. They could take command of their death, making sure they fell bravely in battle. It wasn’t more complicated than that. The brave would then be chosen among the dead on the battlefield by the Valkyries, who’d take them to Valhalla. The total opposite of Helheim, Valhalla was the abode of Odin where the days were spent fighting and the nights feasting. In other words, a Viking paradise.

It must have been hopeless to face a horde where each man knew that there was victory even in Death.


Helheim and its mishapen ruler

Feasting in Valhalla


1 comment

  • Nick

    They had an amazing mindset.

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