Pagan Afterlife: Where Do Pagans Go When They Die?
Just as Christians and other religions have their beliefs in an afterlife, so do pagans. Depending on the pagan tradition and even down to the individual, the pagan afterlife will have different names and legends to go along with it. Learn about different ideas of the pagan afterlife and we will answer the question “where do pagans go when they die?”
The Pagan Afterlife
What we’ll cover in this article:
- The Wiccan Summerland
- The Celtic Otherworld
- Norse Pagan Afterlife: Valhalla, Folkvangr and Helheim
- Variations in Belief
Where Do Wiccans Go When They Die?
Wicca is a religion unto itself. Often people get Wiccans mixed up with Pagans. They think if you’re pagan, you must be Wiccan, right? Wrong. There are many different forms of paganism, Wicca is just one branch. That being said, Wiccans believe in a pagan afterlife and they call it the Summerland. The Wiccan Summerland is comparable to the Christians’ Heaven with some pagan differences.
Wiccans believe souls travel to the Wiccan Summerland after death to await reincarnation. Once the soul learns or experiences all it needs, the reincarnation cycle ends. Then the soul stays in the Wiccan Summerland for eternity. Of course, beliefs on exactly how this happens varies. The Wiccan Summerland belief was no doubt influenced by the Celtic Otherworld and the Norse Pagan afterlife.
The Celtic Otherworld
To our ancient Celtic ancestors, death was just a part of the cycle of life. There were various beliefs in a Celtic pagan afterlife, depending on the people. In Welsh mythology, the Celtic Otherworld was called Annwn and was a place of abundance, health, and eternal youth. The Welsh Celtic god Arawn ruled the Celtic Otherworld, as told in the early Welsh prose story The Four Branches of the Mabinogi.
The Irish Celts also believed in the Celtic Otherworld, located somewhere under the earth or under/over the sea. There were many names for it including Tir Na Nog, Tir Naill, Tech Duinn, and Mag Mell. Whether these were different names for the Celtic Otherworld or separate places within it remains a mystery. The Celtic Otherworld was a place where the gods and ancestors lived – a place of eternal life.
The Welsh and Irish weren’t the only Celtic people. Remember the Gauls on Continental Europe were also Celtic and they too had a pagan afterlife similar to the Irish and Welsh. The Celtic Otherworld to the Gauls was known as Orbis alius. At least that’s the Latin name for it. The Gaulish Celtic people believed in three major planes of existence: upper, middle, and lower. This reflects a worldwide mythical concept of the World Tree in which the upper world is the realm of gods, the middle world is the world of men, and the lower world is the realm of the dead.
The Norse Germanic Pagan Afterlife
Similar to the Celts’ belief in the Otherworld, the Norse peoples believed in a pagan afterlife too. The World Tree concept was an integral part of Norse paganism, but their name for it was Yggdrasil. The tree consisted of nine realms: Niflheim, Muspelheim, Asgard, Midgard, Jotunheim, Vanaheim, Alfheim, Svartalfheim, and Helheim. The gods, dwarves, giants, elves, humans, and the dead dwelled in various realms throughout.
Maybe you’ve heard the word Valhalla, mentioned often in the popular TV show Vikings. Valhalla was one of the places the dead could go after death – a place with Odin in Asgard for fallen warriors to go in preparation for a future war known as Ragnarok. Hel was another realm of the dead, somewhere under or in the earth, ruled by the goddess Hel. The goddess Freya presided over a field of the dead called Folkvangr.
You’ll find many people online who claim you must be a soldier or die in battle to go to Valhalla with Odin. I believe if you are a warrior for a cause (it doesn’t have to be literal) and you/or you are Odin’s devotee, you have the ability to reach Valhalla. Ultimately it was up to the gods and your deeds on earth that determined where you went in the Norse Pagan afterlife. More can be read about the Norse Pagan beliefs in the Edda by Snorri Sturluson.
Folkvangr: Freya’s Hall of the Dead
Many people forget, there is more than one place in the Norse afterlife where the dead may go. Freya, goddess of love, war and witchcraft, also had her own hall of the dead called Folkvangr. The Norse myths say that those who died on the battlefield were first surveilled by Freya, and she took those whom she wanted FIRST…before Odin received his fallen warriors in Valhalla. But there’s other Sagas that point to the fact that it wasn’t just warriors or fallen warriors that went to Freya’s realm. But those who were devoted to her, as well.
Helheim a.k.a. Hel
No, this is not the same place as the Christian Hell. Though it does have a similar name. I’m sure that happened for a reason. But Helheim, also known as the goddess Hel’s realm, is another place where the dead could go in the Norse pagan afterlife. Although Snorri Sturluson, the scholar who recorded many of the Norse myths, painted Helheim to be a very bleak and torturous place. Modern scholars and neo-pagans believe Sturluson’s view of Helheim was clouded by the Christian influence all around him at the time. Still others claim Helheim is a place where the dead go to rest and even “party” with their ancestors. It is potentially a place where we go before reincarnating…
Pagan Belief in Reincarnation
In addition to having a place for the dead to go after life, many pagans believe in the process of reincarnation. Reincarnation is the belief the soul cycles in and out of physical bodies. When you die in this life, your soul will return to the earth in another body. This concept is worldwide and ancient. Reincarnation can be found in Hinduism, Buddhism, Sikhism, Jainism, and other far east religions. Before the rise of the Church in Europe, the Celts believed in reincarnation and so did the Norse people.
Today, some pagans believe the cycle never ends. Some believe the cycle ends when the soul has learned and experienced all there is to learn and experience. Some believe people reincarnate into animals, while others do not. Do we reincarnate down our family line? Were our ancestors actually us in another form? Read more about that here. The belief in reincarnation and how it works will vary by individual. Some pagans don’t believe in reincarnation at all! It truly will depend on your personal beliefs and experiences.
But what happens upon death, exactly?
No one alive knows exactly what happens upon death. I would venture to say the only people who may know have had near-death experiences and were clinically dead for a period of time. Often their stories are similar – floating out of their bodies, flying up into a tunnel of light, and then seeing their dead loved ones or hearing voices on the “other side” before returning to their bodies. This is a consistent story and correlates to the dreams of death I’ve had. Yes, I’ve died in my dreams. I float out of my body, up into the sky, and look around to see the stars before going to a “place” in the sky. It felt as if I was being absorbed into the Universe. If I had to tell you what happens upon death, it would be this.
Variations in Pagan Afterlife Beliefs
Because paganism is an umbrella term, and because there are so many branches of paganism, it’s impossible to give one answer to the question where do pagans go when they die? Every tradition has its own beliefs such as Valhalla, Tir na Nog, and the Summerland. Every individual has their own beliefs about such places which might vary from someone else who follows the same tradition. Still others say we have options when we die: we may choose to go be with the gods, reincarnate, or even to become a guide or ancestor and stay on the earthly plane.
In my humble opinion, I believe whatever you believe in the afterlife is what will happen to you. We create our own realities. That being said, it’s difficult for me to believe in anything other than the cycle of life/death/rebirth. I’ve had too many dreams and experiences that indicate an afterlife is inevitable. Energy never dies, only changes form. So whether we have a soul that moves to the beyond upon death, or whether our energy goes into the earth upon death, either way – our energy just transforms into something else. Therefore, we live forever in one way or another. Othala.