Copyright © 1985 by Theosophical University Press. All rights reserved.
Survival after death of the body was clearly taken for granted by the Norse seers, and the adventures of consciousness continue after death without interruption. When a human body dies, the occupant embarks on a journey through the realm of Hel, queen of the dead: she is depicted as half blue, i.e., half dead yet half alive, and she is the daughter of Loki — mind. This interesting point is made in many mythologies, which imply that death came into being following the awakening of intelligence, so that the use of this faculty and of the free will which accompanies it is universally connected with the introduction of death and the opportunity it affords the soul to evaluate and profit by the experiences undergone in life, as well as providing rest and recuperation.
When a human being dies, before embarking on the 'journey through Hel's domain, the soul is equipped with footgear strictly in accord with its character: a good and kindly person is provided with sturdy shoes whereas the gross and earthbound one is scantily shod or barefoot amid the rocks and brambles it must traverse to reach the well of Urd where its future will be decided. Urd, as we have seen, is Origin — causes created in the past. She waters the soul's individual tree of life as well as the cosmic Yggdrasil: the past determines all one's future condition, in death as well as future lives.
At the spring of Urd the soul is judged by Odin, its inmost Self, "father of the gods" as well as its own "father in heaven." But, although Odin pronounces he does so according to the prompting of Urd — the soul's past determines the judgment of its inner god and its placement in the many-layered realm of Hel. Following the judgment, the soul seeks its proper habitat and finds the place that is its own by reason of affinity among the endlessly varied regions of the dead. One may enjoy sunlit meadows decked with flowers if this is in accord with its natural inclinations; another, being of evil disposition, may be confined in a venom-soaked cage beneath the nether gates that lead to inferior worlds. The Edda does not specify the duration of these after-life states, but if we may reason from logic as well as from Greek, Tibetan, and other mythical sources, it is safe to assume that each individual remains in this dream world of his own making until its attraction is exhausted. Another description of the after-death condition is given in Loki's Flyting, where the elves are present at the banquet of the gods, but sleepily unaware of their surroundings.
In due course, the Ase-maker is ready to resume its journey through life on earth. Again it visits the well of Urd, who now has the task of selecting a mother for its new birth. Once more we see the past determining the future in an inescapable sequence of cause and effect. We have seen how Bargalmer, the end result of a cosmos or any world, was ground up and saved for reuse in a subsequent manifestation as Orgalmer. The same law may be applied analogically to human life, which is a universe on a smaller scale. Just as seeds planted in the spring will, after many days and nights, bring forth their fruitage where they were sown, so seeds of thought and action must bear their harvest of good or ill in the field where they originated, even after many deaths and births.
The only true hell in the Edda is Niflhel, the sphere of absolute matter where the material for new worlds is formed out of the dregs of the old, after being ground on the mill, homogenized, reduced to formlessness. It is the caldron of Sinmara which, like the caldron of the Welsh Ceridwen, contains mother-matter. It would seem that only a soul so utterly depraved that it has no mead to contribute to its inner god can know the dread fate of total extinction; having allied its entire being with the giant-side of nature it has lost all trace of spirituality and its hamingja can no longer nurture and inspire its return to the divine spheres that are its home. Such a soul, having passed irretrievably through and beneath the house of Hel with its many halls, both sumptuous and dismal, having no increment whatever of enduring spirit, descends to the Niflhel of absolute extinction. All others visit the well of Urd for her selection of the coming lot in life: the most appropriate and useful conditions for the soul's further growth. The circumstances thus chosen may not always be to our liking, for we have not the wisdom of our divine hamingja to see the precise needs of the soul. It may well be that to one a happy life will bring expanded sympathies and greater awareness, but it is very often suffering which more effectively arouses the knowledge of others' need and the wisdom to supply it aright, mellowing the soul and enabling it to blend with the universal in divine compassion. The right and fitting selection from the well of the past will nevertheless be made.
The Edda, like other traditional classics, takes for granted the reimbodiment of consciousnesses at all levels and the absolute justice of natural law. There is a Christian gloss added at the conclusion of the second lay of Helge Hundingsbane:
It was the belief in former days that people were reborn after death; but this is now called an old wives' tale. Helge and Sigrun are said to have been born again; he was then named Helge Haddingskate and she Kara Halfdansdotter, as told in the Lays of the Crow; and she was a Valkyrie.
It is worth observing that it is in the oldest relics of any mythology that we find the largest portion of universal theosophy and the grandest concepts. It seems the intervening millennia have done little but distort the pure versions of prehistory; to reach the pristine ideas we often have to fumble through curtains of ignorant and inhibiting prejudice that have been interposed throughout centuries and that effectively conceal the jewels of thought they contain.