Bridge over the canyon at the Skocjan Caves in Slovenia

Wardruna’s Helvegen – Who Shall Sing Me Into the Death-Sleep?

Everyone dies. Each of us must face our own death.

We each must live with the fact that people we know will die. Even those we love the most die, our friends, our siblings, our parents, even, sometimes, our children. Eventually, everyone dies.

Death is many different things to many different people, and is treated differently in different families, in different regions, in different cultures. It was not simple for our ancestors either, including those who lived in northern Europe in ancient times.

Wardruna’s song “Helvegen”, from their 2013 album “Runaljod – Yggdrasil”, is about death. It is not about Valhalla. Despite what you’ve heard, not all “Norse” people were Vikings, those men and women who went seeking their fortune as traders and raiders between the late 8th century and the late 11th century. And neither the people of the Viking age, not all of whom were “vikings”, nor the other pre-Christian Germanic peoples of that age or the ages before that, thought Valhalla was part of their life cycle. And, indeed, these people thought a great deal about life and death in terms of the life cycle.

The pre-Christian Germanic peoples thought of their lives ending with them returning to the ground, not into the sky with the gods. In the ground, at the roots of the tree of life Yggdrasil, is Niflheim, the land of darkness, cold, ice, and fog. Perhaps interchangeable with Niflheim, perhaps a distinct but adjacent location, is Hel or Niflhel, the land of the dead. This is the place the Germanic dead went when they died, a land ruled over by one of Loki’s children, a woman who was herself called Hel, with whom Frigga bargained to release her beloved son Baldr when he died… but did not let him go, because her terms were not met. So the dead went into the cold dark, and could not return without the assent of a woman who could stand up to Frigga and by implication Odin, a death-god himself. Facing Hel was scary.

But finding a way to accept your fate was also fundamental to the lived experience of the pre-Christian Germanic peoples. Death was not the end. After a person died, their body returned to the earth in their graves and eventually, their bodies became food for the insects, plants, and animals who dwelled beneath the ground. New generations, children, grandchildren, and so on, were born and raised by those who remained after the deceased, and it was their sacred duty to remember the fallen, to venerate ancestors, to keep stories, memories, and traditions alive, passed from one generation to the next. While death was in fact scary, it was also a natural part of the life cycle, just like the ongoing cycle of the seasons, the perpetual birth, life, death, and rebirth. Nothing truly dies, even if passing from one part of the cycle to another can be quite frightening.

Here Einar Selvik of Wardruna performs “Helvegen” at the 2015 Faerieworlds Festival in Oregon, with an introductory explanation of the instrument played, the song, and its roots in Norse tradition.

Helvegen is a song about facing death. As Einar Selvik explains in the video above, and in various interviews, ancient practices surrounding death included death songs, where the community stayed by the bedside of the dying and helped guide them on the path to Hel with a song, so they wouldn’t be quite so afraid (I’m elaborating a bit on Selvik’s point here). As a sick person drifted in and out of consciousness, they could hear their loved ones supporting them. As they drifted onto the Gjallarbru, the Resounding Bridge, and slowly crept across the chasm that separates life from death, they could take comfort in knowing that they had people who loved them in life, and would continue loving them in death. And that just as the person dying had loved and remembered their ancestors in life, their loved ones, old and young, would carry their story onward in remembrance.

We don’t have those death songs anymore – we don’t know what they sounded like, what the words were, how the ritual worked. We have a variety of funeral practices across Western civilization that in some ways echo the practices of old. But for the most part, we’ve adopted new, different things. We comfort one another, but in different ways.

Music is powerful, though. And this song in particular carries its own unique power worth sharing. Wardruna is a project that attempts to create new renditions of Norse cultural and esoteric traditions through use of ancient instruments, hand-made instruments, chant-style singing, and other aspects of older music. Perhaps the power in the song is in making the ancient feel accessible.

Here are the lyrics to “Helvegen” – sung in Norwegian (some Wardruna songs are in Old Norse). I’ve started with the English translation, so you can get a feel for how it works. Listen to the song, a lyric video for which is below the original Norwegian. Feel its rhythms. This is, to some extent, how the ancient poems felt, too, as they had a performance element to them, probably with at least a drum or a lyre, maybe more than that. You’ll even see a direct comparison – “Helvegen” ends with a brief, and very famous, quotation from the Eddic poem “Havamal“, which I have myself sought for comfort on the death of a loved one.

Many songs, like the death songs, the work songs, the birth/labor songs, may be lost to us, but they undoubtedly were well known, and were practiced regularly in the community. Wardruna can’t resurrect lost songs, but they do use ancient instruments, the rhythms of ancient poetry and song, and create new music to respect what once was.

Let “Helvegen” be your gateway to these ancient practices.

Helvegen

by Wardruna

Who shall sing me
into the death-sleep sling me
When I walk on the Path of Death
and the tracks I tread are cold, so cold

I sought the songs
I sent the songs
when the deepest well
gave me the drops so touched
of Death-father’s wager

I know it all, Odin
where you hid your eye

Who shall sing me
into the death-sleep sling me
When I walk on the Path of Death
and the tracks I tread are cold, so cold

early in the days’ end
still the raven knows if I fall

When you stand by the Gate of Death
And you have to tear free
I shall follow you
across the Resounding Bridge with my song

You will be free from the bonds that bind you!
You are free from the bonds that bound that you!

[Havamal excerpt]

Cattle die, kinsmen die,
the self must also die;
but glory never dies,
for the man who is able to achieve it.

Cattle die, kinsmen die,
the self must also die;
I know one thing which never dies:
the reputation of each dead man.

Helvegen (Norwegian)

Hvem skal synge meg
i daudsvevna slynge meg
når eg på Helvegen går
og dei spora eg trår er kalda, så kalda
Eg songane søkte
Eg songane sende
då den djupaste brunni
gav meg dråper så ramme
av Valfaders pant

Alt veit eg, Odin
var du gjømde ditt auge

Hvem skal synge meg
i daudsvevna slynge meg
når eg på Helvegen går
og dei spora eg trår er kalda, så kalda

Årle ell i dagars hell
enn veit ravnen om eg fell

Når du ved helgrindi står

og når du laus deg må riva
skal eg fylgje deg
over Gjallarbrua med min song

Du blir løyst frå banda som bind deg!
Du er løyst frå banda som batt deg!

[Havamal excerpt]

Døyr fe, døyr frender
Døyr sjølv det sama
men ordet om deg aldreg døyr
vinn du et gjetord gjevt

Døyr fe, døyr frender
Døyr sjølv det sama
Eg veit et som aldreg døyr
dom om daudan kvar

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