Hermodr in Hel from an 18th-century Icelandic manuscript
Hermodr in Hel from an 18th-century Icelandic manuscript

Hermod (pronounced “HAIR-mode”; from Old Norse Hermóðr) is a minor figure in Norse mythology.

The meaning and etymology of his name aren’t entirely clear, but it seems likely that his name is either a variant of hermaðr, “warrior,” or means “fury of war” (from herr, “army,” and móðr, “excitement, wrath, passion”).

Hermod is best known from medieval Icelander Snorri Sturluson’s Prose Edda, from an episode in which he traveled to the underworld on Sleipnir, the horse of the god Odin. There, he unsuccessfully pleaded with Hel, the death goddess, to return his brother Baldur to the world of the living. (For more details and background, see The Death of Baldur).

Snorri’s version of the tale is mostly uncorroborated by outside sources, and Snorri’s unsupported claims should be approached with a healthy measure of skepticism. However, we can be reasonably sure that Snorri was using sources that are now lost to us in his version of the tale of Baldur’s death and Hermod’s ride to Hel. For one thing, his account is quite complete and nuanced – too much so to have been the product of Snorri’s rather unexceptional imagination. The narrative of Hermod’s ride to Hel is one of many instances of journeys to the underworld in Old Norse literature, and matches those other narratives enough in both its overall form and in many details that it must surely be an authentic representative of that genre.[1]

Hermod receives a few other passing mentions in Germanic literature. In the Hyndluljóð, one of the poems in the Poetic Edda, a section praising Odin recounts how the god gave Hermod and the human hero Sigmund weapons and armor.[2] Here, Hermod appears to be a human hero himself, rather than a god as he is in Snorri’s version.

In the skaldic poem Hákonarmál, Hermod and “Bragi” greet fallen warriors as they enter Valhalla. It’s unclear whether the “Bragi” mentioned here is the god Bragi or the human poet Bragi Boddason, which makes it impossible to assess whether Hermod is here considered to be a god or a human hero.[3]

Intriguingly, Old English genealogies sometimes list a Heremod as a descendant of Wodan (Odin), and the Old English poem Beowulf mentions a king named Heremod who undertook long, arduous journeys while in exile, which could have some connection to the narrative of Hermod’s ride to Hel.[4]

Due to Hermod’s associations with war and shamanism (his travel between worlds bears all of the hallmarks of pagan Norse shamanism), as well as the motif of the exiled king, it’s difficult to resist the conclusion that he is an only nominally distinct extension of Odin who remains in some sense synonymous with Odin himself. Old Norse literature is, after all, full of other such extensions of Odin.

Such an interpretation still leaves many questions unanswered, but due to the paltriness of the references to Hermod in primary sources, that’s about all we can say with any real degree of certainty. Perhaps there was also a parallel tradition in which Hermod was a human or semidivine hero, or perhaps this latter conception of Hermod refers to a different figure who merely happens to share the same name. In the end, the strong connection to Odin, including the sharing of many essential attributes and deeds, is the only thing of which we can be reasonably sure.

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[1] Simek, Rudolf. 1993. Dictionary of Northern Mythology. Translated by Angela Hall. p. 143-144.

[2] The Poetic Edda. Hyndluljóð, stanza 2.

[3] Simek, Rudolf. 1993. Dictionary of Northern Mythology. Translated by Angela Hall. p. 143-144.

[4] Ibid.

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