Most of you have heard of Valhalla, some maybe even of Folkvangr, places, where heroes slain in battle, are being received by their rulers – Odin and Freya. The halls so divine that we can conclude without a doubt were dreams of every warrior in the Viking world.
But, what happened to those who led their lives rather peacefully, you might ask, to those who never wished upon such glory. Was there an afterlife reward for the lumberers, farmers, traders, mothers, or the ones too sick and old for the battle? Despite the popular opinion, the afterlife in Norse mythology was not only meant to be "a prize" for the fighters. There was a place for everyone, by their own merit. Hel, the final destination of men who led their lives simply, will be the subject of our article.
Hel, the Goddess of Death
Our story about the realm of death should begin as a story about any country or place in the world of eternity - with its ruler. The ruler of Hel is Hel herself, the fearsome Goddess of death. In Norse mythology, Hel is the child of the giantess Angrbroda, and the trickster God, Loki. That means that, besides being a Goddess of death and guardian of the Underworld, Hel is also a giantess.
Hel has two siblings. One is Fenrir, a giant wolf who is foretold to kill Odin during Ragnarok (the world’s end) and to be in return killed by Thor. The other one is Jörmungandr, a huge snake that can surround the whole world and to bite its tail at the world’s end. Jörmungandr is the arch-enemy of Thor.
Hel is usually represented as a woman who is separated in half down the middle of her body. One side is represented as a pale woman, usually with long, black hair. In contrast, the other side is represented as a skeleton. Her human side of the body is there to give people an understanding of death and to show that, after all, death is just another part of life and should be welcomed and not something to be afraid of. That does not mean that she thinks of death as something beautiful. She merely states the fact that it exists and should be accepted.
When she extends her hand to greet someone, she always does it with her skeletal hand. That is done to see if humans or other passers have the ability to cope with the rotten part of her body. When she does that, you should not be afraid, but kiss her hand as a sign of respect for her and the realm she rules. Hel is known to show respect for the respect received, so the one who does the right thing can expect small favors from her in return.
When in the presence of other Gods, she rarely moves. Hel is dressed in a long black or grey robe. She is usually still and silent and sometimes makes some hand gesture once in a while to show that she is present. When she moves, she does it slowly, albeit with a little limp on her skeletal foot. When she speaks, her voice is calm and raspy.
The Most Famous Myth about Hel
Probably the most famous story surrounding Hel is related to the death of Baldr. Baldr was a God whose death was told to precede the events of Ragnarok. For a long time, he had dreams about his death. His dreams were shared by his mother, Frigg. In order to save him, Frigg made everything and everyone in the world to swear an oath not to hurt Baldr. The only object, which didn’t do that, was mistletoe.
This was probably done because mistletoe was considered far too unimportant for such a thing. Having heard of that, Hel’s father, Loki, crafted a spear from this plant. He gave it to Hodr, Baldr’s blind brother. Knowing that nothing can hurt Baldr, some of the Gods spent their days jokingly throwing things at Baldr only for them to bounce off of him. When Hodr threw his spear at Baldr, it killed him, and since he didn’t die in combat, he wound up in Hel.
Saddened by the event, the god Hermodr, one of the Baldr’s brothers, volunteered to ride Sleipnir, the eight-legged horse which knew the way, to visit the Underworld and to ask Hel to release Baldr from her deadly grasp. Hermodr managed to find Baldr and Hel and pleaded to Hel to release his brother and to let him ride with him back to the realm of the living because all of the Aesir wept for him.
Hel agreed to do that if the world could prove that their love of Baldr is that great. She asked that all of the worlds weep for him. If they do, she will release him. All of them did except for jötunn Þökk who refused to do so, saying that all things which were reached by Hel’s grasp should stay with her. Some believe that the jötunn was no other than Loki in disguise. This story also serves to show us the inevitability of death.
Hel, the Realm of Death
As we already mentioned at the beginning of our story, you have probably already heard of Valhalla and Folkvangr. Those are the places where people who die in combat go. But there has to be a place where the rest of the people go because not everyone was destined to die in battle.
Some were going to die of sickness, some were going to die in an accident and, of course, a lot of people die of old age. Hel is a place where those men and women go.
We all know that the world of Norse mythology is divided into nine realms, which are spread across the Tree of Life - Yggdrasil. One of those nine realms is Hel (or Helheim in some sources). Most of you have already heard stories of Hermodr and his quest to find Baldr. His stories about what he saw there are our best source of what Hel looks like.
First, he had to reach Hel. He traveled for nine deadly dark nights until he reached the river Gjoll. Gjoll could be crossed by the bridge with a golden roof. When he crossed the bridge, he encountered its guardian, fierce warrior Modgud. Modgud here tells us that people in Hel are of a different color than they are in real life.
Proceeding further, he reached the gates of Hel. The gates have many names. Some call them Helgrind (gate of Hel), and some call them Valgrind or Nagrind (gate of corpses). Inside it, there is a great hall, where Hermodr managed to find Baldr.
Hel is supposed to play a huge part in Ragnarok, where the army of the dead will be raised from Hel to fight with their ruler Hel. Later they will arrive at Vigridr, the place of the final battle, to fight alongside Loki.
The Difference Between Helheim and Niflheim
Now, for our story, it is essential to make a difference between Hel, or Helheim, and Niflheim. We have already established that the Goddess Hel rules over Helheim. The confusing part is that in Prose Edda, it is said that Odin sent Hel to Niflheim and gave her a great hall by the name of Eljundir. In it, she serves a meal called Hunger, has a knife called Famine, and sleeps in bed called Sick Bed.
But if all of that happens in Niflheim, what is the difference between Hel and Niflheim?! Well, one can say that they are the same thing. If that is true, there is one realm missing in the world tree. The most likely version of events is that Hel or Helheim and Niflheim are two different levels of death.
Namely, good people who die outside of battle, go to Hel. There they resume their regular lives, the way they used to live them on earth. They wake up, they work, eat, sleep, and so on. Bad people who die of unworthy death go to Niflheim, where the death is supposed to wait for them. There are not many sources explaining what this exactly is supposed to mean. Still, the most probable answer is that Niflheim is the place of permanent death, that is, the death of the soul itself.
Hel in Popular Culture
There are not many representations of Nordic Hel in popular culture, but one of the most interesting is in the video game God of War. In it, Hel is represented as a place of permanent ice and cold. Nothing can survive there. Even Odin fears to venture the halls of Helheim. In the game, the souls of the deceased must pass the Bridge of the Damned, which is guarded by a Troll Mattugr Helson. This is probably a reference to Gjoll bridge and Modgud.
Also, Hel the Goddess of death was represented in Marvel comics as part of the Thor franchise. She is usually partnered with Loki and appears in the film Thor: Ragnarok.
In Christian interpretations, “Hell” is often represented as a nightmarish, spooky place of eternal torture. “Hell“ is rather a punishment than reward - final payment of our actions. So who would say that its name originates from such a peaceful spot? There is probably only one parallel to be drawn: Not being able to fight for a Viking is just as humiliating as not being welcomed in Heaven for a Christian.
So, there you have it fellow Vikings. In these modern and mostly peaceful times that we live in, the chances of going to Valhalla or Folkvangr are not that great. As we have seen here, that doesn’t have to be a bad thing necessarily. After all, who needs to fight all day, only to rise again tomorrow?
We can all live a peaceful life after death, being with our loved ones besides Hel in her halls. But, beware, if you treat those around you badly and without respect, the icy cold death of Niflheim awaits you. With these thoughts, until the next meeting, we salute you. Skål!