Around this time of year, most Asatru Kindreds and the solo Asatruar out there celebrate a modern feast that we variously call "Einherjar" or the "Long Feast of the Einherjar" or something to that effect. It's a formal occassion by which the Einherjar, the heroic dead, are honored. The heroic dead are those who, by virtue of their bravery or sense of duty, made the sacrifice of their own lives in battle, both in the past, and in this age of the world.
This sort of talk raises some eyebrows. Are we bloodthirsty Heathens off glorifying violence, as everyone thinks we do? "Surely", (so speak the ill-informed) "your ancestors were a bloodthirsty lot who glorified deaths in battle, telling warriors that they'd feast with Odin and get served drinks and pork roast by beautiful maidens. Does that not incite people to kill and die recklessly?"
I don't need to cover the pointless debate about whose ancestors were "more violent" than others. In the past, as in the present, violence was and is a part of human life, and Asatru isn't the only religion that teaches of a happy afterlife for the brave and the noble. But this sacred time of year in which the Einherjar- the slain heroes- are honored, isn't a time to reflect on violence, but on bravery and nobility in the face of struggle.
The sacred stories tell us that the battle-slain were taken by Valkyries- feminine spirits who serve Allfather as his handmaidens and servants- and brought to Valhalla, the "Hall of the Slain". There, they feasted in the long feast with Allfather and the Gods, given a neverending supply of mead, ale, and pork. They sported in combat training all day, and by night, had healed for another round of drinking and feasting. They continued in this warrior's heaven until the Doom of the world itself- Ragnarok, the Judgment of the Powers, and they had the final honor of joining the Gods in the final battle in which they and the Gods all die, going out in their final blaze of glory. Then the worlds fall apart under the weight of the victorious wicked powers, to await its own regeneration and a new beginning.
What a story! What an idea of an afterlife! We usually don't know what to make of it in the modern world, but I think there's more to it than meets the eye. At first glance, it seems a simple warrior's paradise, and to some extent, there's a lot of that going on here. To begin with, this vision of Valhalla belongs to a late period in Germanic Heathen history- the Viking period- which was also the last period of active Heathen religion before the Interregnum. This vision of Valhalla is also found only in Icelandic Heathen literature.
This isn't to say that other Germanic Heathens from other time periods didn't have some idea of a Warrior's paradise out there for warriors who died bravely; only that we can't be sure. You'd have to be a fool to imagine that ideas like Valhalla just appeared out of nowhere; surely there was a long precedent for it, for in organic and traditional religions, things seldom happen randomly or quickly.
But what we can be certain that the Germanic family of human beings was very massive and not uniform. They have ages of history behind them, and organic religions undergo natural evolutions. We know that Odhinn- Valhall's great Father- was not always the chief God of the Germanic people, but he has occupied that title and respect for a very long time. Did Tiwaz or Tyr, the Great Shining Lord of the Sky himself, once sit at the feasting table in a heavenly realm for warriors? It seems likely, given what we know of the beliefs of related peoples in their own veneration of Tiwaz, who always had the characteristics of a warrior.
It really doesn't matter- all this talk is just talk. What we can be sure of is that some of our Heathen ancestors believed that Odhinn- or the Gods- honored the glorious dead, and the bravery that it took to be a career fighter and risk your life all the time was a sign that you were worthy to stand with the Gods at the end of time, when the Doom of the world was finally shown and done with. At the last battle- an unwinnable battle- the forces that support life and consciousness stand heroically, showing that even in certain defeat, they stand for what they stand for, against the powers of darkness and oblivion. Such heroism in the face of certain doom is the single most powerful statement of devotion and nobility that can be shown, in any world, in any time.
I personally don't believe that death while fighting is enough to win the honor of "Einherjar". People can be fighting for destructive, greedy reasons- and thus, spreading violence for decidedly evil ends. This sort of behavior isn't Godly, nor worth a Godly welcome. We know that the Eddas said that even the battle-slain had to pass through Hel, the Underworld, to face their own judgment, before being lifted to their reward in the enclosure of the Gods. What they had with them was the Valkyrie, to be their advocate in that dark place. The dead, it was thought, did not and could not speak for themselves- it was their luck-force, their Hamingja, and in the case of the glorious dead, the Valkyrie, who spoke on their behalf, showing all in the judgment-ring the quality of that person.
I don't think that a viking, raping and pillaging his way across some land, who drew his sword to enter some homestead on some farm with the full intention of raping the women inside, would be considered an "Einherjar" if the farmer who lived there lucked up and killed him with a pitchfork. But I do think that noble men and women, defending their land or people, or serving honorably under a war-leader whose goals were at least in part motivated by the good of their people, would certainly be honored in the afterlife if they were slain in their duties.
Of course, I can't say. Wyrd is strange, and judgment- the true measure of a man or woman- is far from certain to mortals, based as it is on so many hidden factors. Only the Gods and spirits who can see in a more complete way- those who can see the Well of Wyrd- can know for sure what destiny awaits the dead of this world. But I can say with confidence that living a life of murder and rape probably won't line you up for a glorious afterlife.
Who are the Einherjar of our present day? Who were they in the distant past? They are those men and women who devote themselves to the way of the warrior. And what is that? Is a warrior a person who lives by a sword, and practices fighting and killing? That's one function of a warrior, to be certain.
But it's my opinion that "warrior" and "warfare" goes far deeper. In a way, all of life is a battlefield, and all of us are called to struggle, whether we want to or not, and whether we realize this fact or not. The world is a battlefield, where the forces of order and chaos clash daily- both in fields of battle with actual weapons, and in the field of the human mind and soul, where greedy and selfish urges rise up to overwhelm our innate sense of goodness, bravery, and self-sacrifice.
I think that anyone from the modern day who devotes their life to fighting against greed, selfishness and corruption, is a warrior. These can be lawyers who fight with greedy corporations, or activists who fight against financial imperialism on the parts of greedy nations. These can be people who struggle against environmental destruction, or people who fight for equal rights for others. It can be a policeman or policewoman who risks their life daily to support the safety of society. It can even be a Buddhist monk, struggling in contemplation against the dark forces in his own mind and spirit. These struggles are reflections of deeper cosmic struggles, and they are no less dangerous- people are murdered or die everyday because they stood on one side of a struggle that was over greed, money and politics.
I think those brave souls are equally honored by the Gods, and are Einherjar.
The more traditional warrior is present in our modern day- and they deserve great honors. They are our veterans, who, in the name of duty, expose themselves to danger on a daily basis, and who live through terrible ordeals. Maybe you are like me, and you don't agree with the current war in Iraq. It may be the case that the United States is fighting for a lost cause there, under false pretexts for war. But men and women are there, fighting and dying, not because someone is holding a gun to their heads, but because they volunteered, and because it is their duty.
And they are real heroes, whether they die in battle or not. They are brave, and our ancestors thought of the quality of bravery as the gold of the human spirit.
The Veterans of past wars are also in need of praise- think of World War II, where the world had to fight against one of the greatest evils the world had ever seen- Nazi Germany. My own Grandfather proudly participated in that great and holy struggle, and he stormed the beaches at Normandy, facing death at every step.
It was not Fated that I should ever know my Grandfather to be able to ask him questions about his war experiences, for he died when I was very young, but I wish I could speak to him. I wish I could honor him in person. He and his fellow soldiers- just boys from small towns all over America, and all over the rest of the world- saved this planet from an evil regime that needed to be defeated. They were far from their homes and their loved ones, but they fought bravely and won.
They are Einherjar. The word "Einherjar" means "one-harrier"- or, to translate more poetically, "army of one". It refers to a ferociously skillful fighter. For me, the struggle of life extends from battlefields, to the private corners of the minds and hearts of every human being, and this struggle requires bravery and skill if a person is to be successful. Good warriors defeat their enemies on the battlefield, but other fighters are the fighters who struggle to win the lonely battle of the self. And the bravest of warriors sometimes die fighting- but their deaths aren't their end. They go on to experience the Long Feast in the company of the Gods and the heroes of old, and they join the Gods in making the final and best display of goodness, there at the end of all things.
But they die knowing that their deaths are their final and best testament to all they believed in- and we Heathens know that when the worlds are reborn, what was good and noble in the previous world will live again. Nothing worthwhile is ever forgotten or lost for good.
So, in honor of this Feast of the Einherjar, I give my deepest salute of honor and gratitude to the victorious dead, veterans in the past and present who were dragged down to death in battle, but also to the victorious fighters of all kinds, who struggle everyday. Long live the fighters!