As the daughter of a military helicopter pilot (*waves* Hi Dad!) I've always been fascinated by soldiers, both modern, historical, and mythological. My favorite soldier story comes from Norse mythology, the apocalyptic warriors known as the Einherjar. (in-HAYR-yar). In honor of Warrior Week, I wanted to share a little bit about them with you.
Most people know about these guys, they just don't know they have a name--or a purpose. One of the most recognized stories from Norse mythology is that soldiers who die in battle go to Valhalla, the home of Odin. (Valhalla literally translates to "hall of the slain.") I've heard it called Viking Heaven before. I suppose if your idea of heaven is a grand hall where you fight all day then insta-heal at night to go party with roast pork, mead, valkyries, and the best entertainer the world has ever seen (Bragi, the poet/entertainer of the gods) then...well, yeah, I imagine that is Viking heaven.
Not all soldiers who die in battle go to Valhalla. At he behest of Freyja, a gorgeous goddess of magic and leader of the valkyries (literally "choosers of the slain"), valkyries fly half of the slain to her home at Folkvangr ("field of the people"). Less is known, from the spotty texts left to us from medieval Scandinavia, what those soldiers do there. This is completely hypothetical on my part, but I wonder if there's some sort of gender divided afterlife. Recent archaeological finds have shown that Viking warriors were less likely to be all male than we'd originally thought. Apparently researchers used to assume burial with sword = man; burial with brooch = woman. But then somebody got around to analyzing bones and realized...wait a minute; quite a few of these are chicks with swords.
Back to einherjar. The ones taken to Valhalla are not just there to party but to train for a very serious purpose. According to Norse mythology, the world began with the collision of fire and ice and will end when a winter like no other (fimbulvinter) leads to an attack from fire giants. Loki, the great trickster god, will break free from his prison and sail on a ship made of dead men's fingernails to a great field of battle. Yggdrasil, the world tree, shudders, Jormungandr, the world serpent, begins to writhe bringing great tidal waves, and Heimdall blows his horn (much like Gabriel) signalling the end of the world. This is Ragnarok, and it ends with the destruction of the world and the death of the gods. It's been foretold. The gods will lose. And yet Odin and Freyja gather the einherjar for the very specific purpose of fighting on this day.
Can they change fate and stop Ragnarok? Probably not. Unlike Greek myths, in Norse mythology people don't tend to create their own bad fates by trying to stop it--gathering the einherjar won't inadvertently cause Ragnarok like Oedipus' family's attempted infanticide caused of the murder and incest they were trying to prevent. In Norse myth, the things that are going to happen will happen, and there's not much that can be done one way or the other. But that doesn't prevent Odin, Freyja, Thor, and the others from trying. For a mythology full of grim stories, it's oddly hopeful. Or maybe just stubborn.
To me, the einherjar represent the will to fight for what's right, even when you know you'll lose. They train for the impossible, they never give up, and when the day comes, they'll go to battle even knowing the outcome. In the meantime, knowing that horn could blow any moment, they'll party like rock stars because enjoying today is the only guarantee we have.
I think that's a good lesson for any of us.
For your enjoyment, here's the hilarious saga of Bjorn, an aging Viking who just wants a worthy death so he can join the einherjar in Valhall. Sadly for Bjorn, this proves harder than one might think.