“Heimdall Desires the Return of Idun from the Underworld” by Emil Doepler (1881)

Helheim (pronounced “HELL-hame;” Old Norse Helheimr, “the world of the goddess Hel“) is one of the Nine Worlds of Norse mythology. Also known simply as “Hel,” Helheim is the most general name for the underworld where the dead dwell.

What Kind of Place Was Hel?

Despite the fact that Hel lent its name to Hell, the Christian afterlife world where “sinners” are eternally tormented, the Germanic concept of Hel was morally neutral. For one thing, the idea of morality in the monotheistic sense (that is, an allegedly universally applicable standard of “good” and “evil,” rather a perspectival, personal standard of “good” and “bad”) was alien to the indigenous worldview of the Norse and other Germanic peoples. The word “Hel” simply means “hidden/concealed,”[1] referring to the invisible character of the realm and the palpable absence left behind in the wake of the departed. For another thing, everyone went to Hel upon death; one’s actions in life had little to nothing to do with one’s lot thereafter.

Valhalla, Fólkvangr, and the other names for the abode of the dead in Old Norse literature were never separated into cleanly distinct worlds until the writings of the thirteenth-century Icelandic Christian scholar Snorri Sturluson, long after Iceland was Christianized (which became official in the year 1000). Snorri had little knowledge of Norse mythology that isn’t known to any modern expert (in fact, we possess the great majority of Snorri’s sources), and no particular interest in giving an accurate presentation of Norse mythology; his works contain numerous demonstrably false claims, and no uncorroborated statement of his be taken at face value. For that matter, Snorri’s comments about the worlds of the dead are themselves mutually contradictory. Given that, and given that the worlds of the dead are treated as being essentially synonymous – or, at most, differentiated in only a partial and provisional way – in older and more reliable sources, the modern tendency to think of Valhalla and Hel, for example, as radically different places is unwarranted. For more on these points, see Death and the Afterlife and Valhalla.

The sources don’t present any kind of coherent or uniform portrait of what the underworld was thought to be like. This gap is partially explainable by the fragmentary nature of the sources themselves, and partially by the fact that the heathen Germanic peoples don’t seem to have had any formal doctrine concerning what happens to someone after he or she dies. They went into the underworld, the invisible, spiritual aspect of the grave – that much is a common constant. But past that point, accounts differ considerably. On the whole, though, the underworld seems to have been roughly analogous to the world of the living. The dead continued to live in some way in their graves; death wasn’t as much an abrupt break with life as it was a transition to a different modality of life. Again, see the article on Death and the Afterlife for more on this point.

The Road to Hel

What the sources do describe in uncharacteristic detail, however, is the course that one had to travel in order to reach Hel. Given how precisely they correspond to the narratives of traditional shamanic journeys of other circumpolar peoples,[2] they seem to recount, and possibly provide templates for, the journeys of Norse shamans. Throughout Old Norse literature, we find instances of such journeys to the underworld undertaken by gods or humans in order to recover a dead spirit or obtain knowledge from the dead.

A journey by the hero Hadding from the Gesta Danorum (History of the Danes) by the medieval Danish historian Saxo Grammaticus is typical. Here is Old Norse scholar E.O.G. Turville-Petre’s apt summary:

While he was living with Ragnhild, Hadding had another mysterious experience. A woman appeared bearing some herbs. Wishing to know where such herbs grew in winter, Hadding went with this woman under the earth. They passed through mists, and then through sunny, fertile regions, where the herbs had grown. Then they came to a raging torrent, flowing with weapons. Crossing by a bridge, they came upon armies of fallen warriors, locked in eternal battle. As they pressed forward, a wall stood in their way; they could go no further, but the woman tore off the head of a cock, which she happened to have with her, and flung it over the wall. Immediately the cock came to life and crowed.[3]

The chicken being thrown over the wall of the underworld (variously called Helgrindr, “The Fence of Hel,” Nágrindr, “Corpse-Fence,” or Valgrindr, “The Fence of the Fallen”[4]) is especially intriguing. I have yet to see a convincing explanation as to its meaning, but it seems to correspond to a Norse funeral custom. The Arab traveler Ibn Fadlan recorded a scene he witnessed where a Norse chief had died and a woman was about to be killed to accompany him (whether voluntarily or otherwise we don’t know), and she cut off a hen’s head and threw it into the ship where her dead body would soon follow.[5]

Another typical account is the journey of Hermod to Hel to attempt to retrieve Baldr, who had recently died. While the account unfortunately comes from Snorri, it matches the other pieces of this genre of underworld-journey narratives closely enough, both in its overall form and in small details, that we can be sure that Snorri relied on a source now lost to us; it’s obviously the product of an imagination far more powerful and better grounded (no pun intended) than Snorri’s. It’s given here due to its completeness.

The god Hermod departed from Asgard, the stronghold of the gods, on Sleipnir, the horse of Odin. He descended down the trunk of Yggdrasil, the great tree that forms the central axis of the cosmos. For nine nights, he rode through deep valleys, so pitch-black he could not see the way. Finally, he came to a river, Gjöll (“Loud Noise”[6]), which was spanned by a bridge named Gjallarbrú (“Bridge over Gjöll”[7]). On the bridge stood a giantess, Móðguðr (“Furious Battle”[8]). The guardian of the bridge wanted to know why Hermod wanted to cross, since she could tell from his appearance that he was not yet dead. His answer, that he was going to look after Baldr, was evidently satisfactory to the giantess, who let him cross, telling him that Hel lay downwards and northwards (niðr ok norðr) from the bridge. When Hermod arrived at the fence around Hel, he jumped over it rather than going through the gate. He then made his way toward the hall of Hel (the goddess), where he found Baldr sitting in the seat of honor.[9]

Hel was located underground – down and to the north, the realm of cold and general lifelessness. It was reached by descending from a higher point with the help of a guide – an unnamed (dead) woman in Hadding’s case, and Sleipnir in the Prose Edda and the poem Baldrs Draumar (Baldr’s Dreams) in the Poetic Edda. After traveling through darkness and mist, one would come to a river, perhaps a torrential river of water, but more commonly a river of clanging weapons.[10] There was a bridge over the river that one had to cross. After a time, one would finally arrive at the wall surrounding Hel, but, for reasons we don’t entirely understand, it wasn’t thought wise to attempt to enter through the gate. More surreptitious ways were preferred. At that point, one would be, in spirit, in the world of the dead in their graves, and one had to take extreme precaution to ensure that one didn’t become trapped there while accomplishing one’s purpose, which is surely part of the reason why all of the surviving accounts of such journeys from northern Europe involve quests undertaken by gods, heroes, or other specialists rather than ordinary people.

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[1] Orel, Vladimir. 2003. A Handbook of Germanic Etymology. p. 156, 168.

[2] Price, Neil S. 2002. The Viking Way: Religion and War in Late Iron Age Scandinavia.

[3] Turville-Petre, E.O.G. 1964. Myth and Religion of the North: The Religion of Ancient Scandinavia. p. 214-215.

[4] Simek, Rudolf. 1993. Dictionary of Northern Mythology. Translated by Angela Hall. p. 137.

[5] Turville-Petre, E.O.G. 1964. Myth and Religion of the North: The Religion of Ancient Scandinavia. p. 215.

[6] Simek, Rudolf. 1993. Dictionary of Northern Mythology. Translated by Angela Hall. p. 137.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid. p. 220.

[9] Snorri Sturluson. The Prose Edda. Gylfaginning 48.

[10] I say “more commonly” because the river of weapons motif is also found in the Völuspá, stanza 36, Grímnismál, stanza 27, and Gylfaginning, chapter 38.